Little Miss Sunshine – Dialogue and Subtext

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The dinner scene works because there are so many curiously chaotic things happening all at once. What could have been a typical, mundane family dinner is brought to life through a ballet of interesting dialogue and subtext which keeps the viewer intrigued and highly entertained by the ever growing quirkiness of the characters and the story itself. In this week’s lecture, we learned “(subtext) can be used to develop psychological depth in your characters” and “Innuendo and double entendre can also be used to add tension and excitement to a scene.” This scene is loaded with gestures, offbeat comments, odd behavior and innuendo working together to add insight into the characters’ mentalities and motivations. Sheryl trying to juggle everything including her job, family and her brother Frank’s attempted suicide, Frank’s disappointment in himself and his growing interest in Dwayne, Grandpa’s outbursts, Dwayne’s vow of silence and all the silly facial expressions and notes which come with it, Olive’s naivety and unrelenting curiosity over Frank’s “accident” and homosexuality and her overwhelming obsession about becoming Little Miss Sunshine, and Richard’s obsession with winning and his feelings about “losers” and his innuendo that Frank is a loser for giving up on himself all transpires over a bucket of KFC. All of these things contribute to the conflict while working together to add tension and excitement to the scene and brilliantly set up the story and the actions which follow.  

Another scene that is infused with subtext is the one when they get pulled over. Everyone clearly thinks they are about to be busted for having a dead Grandpa in the trunk but instead the dirty magazines pour out and kind of save the day. From Richard’s obvious panic to the rest of the family simply watching the highway patrolman in silence to the trooper’s reaction to the porn magazines, all of it adds more and more tension to the moment.  When the trooper grins and waves to the family trying not to let on about what he thinks is the reason Richard is so freaked out (the magazines) and the family waves back so innocently, as viewers we are hoping for the best for this poor family and we’re locked in to whatever happens next. Then when the trooper sees the “Honcho” magazine, stops grinning and looks at Richard who laughs nervously and offers a look that says “I’m guilty” the whole scene comes together. We don’t need any more action, dialogue or explanation. Watching the trooper drive away is enough. This entire scene pulls the viewer in as though we are in the van with this family. We’re more than just watching passively, we are locked in and invested, and just like any member of the family we are holding our breath as we hope for the best.

Juno: Dialogue and Characters

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The dialogue from “Juno” effectively reveals a great deal about all four characters involved.

In this week’s lecture, we learned the importance of “Be(ing) attuned to your characters’ backgrounds, their education, their states of mind.” The dialogue in this scene was successful in doing all of that. Having the four meet like this was a genius way to get all four personalities on screen simultaneously and reveal their motivations and insecurities all at once. Also, “the dialogue here is effective because of the way it moves back and forth between mundane exchanges.”

Juno’s dialogue relays her nervous energy as well as her youth and intelligence. While we see her intelligence through some sarcastic and witty references like “fluoridated water” and “sea biscuit,” the way Juno repeats Gerta Rouse’s name in “an exaggerated German accent” shows her adolescent way of speaking and acting without thinking about repercussions (much like how she wound up pregnant). Also, the fact that Juno refers to her unborn child as “it” shows she isn’t yet attached or perhaps she’s trying not to be. When she tells Vanessa, “You’re lucky it’s not you” it shows she clearly has no comprehension of what this woman must have felt wanting so badly to conceive a child. Her youth shows through again here because she’s not trying to hurt Vanessa’s feelings, but rather she simply doesn’t think before she speaks.

Her father Mac uses sarcasm to deal with a very emotionally challenging situation. His teenage daughter is knocked up and about to give up his only grandchild. This is difficult for him on so many levels, including having to see his daughter suffer. But he wants what is best for both his child and grandchild. His dialogue reveal’s a lower education level than his daughter who he must have pushed to excel in school. Still, his dialogue shows that he is indeed smart. He comes across as an older, more mature version of Juno. In contrast to Juno’s flippant speak-before-she-thinks type comments, he replies more thoughtfully and tries to show his family has manners with things like “We’re fine. Thank you.”

Mark starts off by describing himself as “the husband.” That seems like an innocent comment but like we learned in this week’s lecture what people do not say is just as important as what they say. Later in this scene when Mark says “Vanessa has wanted a child since we got married” he may not realize that he is implying that it was just Vanessa wanting the baby and not him. When Juno asks Mark if he’s looking forward to being a dad and he nonchalantly replies, “sure, why not” that shows that he’s not taking the matter seriously and that he and his wife are not on the same page. All of this foreshadows the unraveling of their relationship. When Mark replies to Juno’s “kickin’ it old school comment” with “technically that would be kickin’ it Old Testament” it shows he is able to easily bring himself down to an adolescent level to relate to Juno. At this point it seems endearing but later in the scene and even more so later in the film we learn that he can’t help it since he hasn’t quite grown up enough himself to deal with having a child. When Mark follows Juno upstairs, their one-on-one dialogue heightens this feeling. He reveals his fear of being perceived as “paranoid yuppies” and then counters Juno’s “klepto” comment with “I don’t get a klepto vibe from you. Evil genius? Maybe. Arsonist? Wouldn’t rule it out.” He doesn’t speak to her like a man who is about to adopt her child. He speaks in an almost flirtatious or competitive tone instead, like someone trying to be on her same level or who’s not ready to let go of his own childhood and grow up just yet.

Vanessa comes across as well educated, overly formal, a little uptight and concerned. It is obvious that she wants this baby and she’s afraid to somehow mess up the opportunity. She works hard to impress Juno and Mac and make them feel at home. She thinks of everything. “I’ll get drinks… I’ve got Pellegrino, Vitamin Water…” shows her desire to put the baby’s health first as well as portray her and Mark as healthy and suitable potential parents. Throughout the scene, she tries to keep everyone on topic and focus on the baby and Juno’s health. In a way, this makes Vanessa seem cold and even obsessed with motherhood. This may make the viewer dislike her here but later it allows us to look back and value the fact that she puts the baby first when we see that this quality is what makes her a good mother.

Chinatown: The Slapping Scene

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Chinatown (the slapping scene):

The scene where Jake continuously slaps Mrs. Mulwray in the face is an unexpected conflict that contributes a great deal to Chinatown’s overall narrative arc by revealing new and hidden qualities of the characters and of the story itself while significantly advancing the plot.

Slapping Mrs. Mulwray shows Jake’s growing frustration. He came across as such a cool, collected, calculated and even reasonable guy up to this point but he was tired of getting the run around and certainly lost his cool completely. There was no other time in the film that he lost it like this (the scene in the barbershop gave a glimpse into the possibility of it but even then he managed to pull it together).  On one hand, it shows a very personal attachment he must have had to Mrs. Mulwray since that level of frustration can only come from a deeper connection. On another hand, it shows that he’s capable of hitting a woman, that he has limits and that he’s not perfect, and it reveals he’s willing to go to the extreme to get to the truth.

For Mrs. Mulwray, it showed her at her weakest. She came across as so strong and pulled together prior to this moment where she completely breaks and her secret flies out into the open. She seems utterly exhausted, too, as though she’s been working so hard to keep her secrets hidden for so long and to keep her stories straight in her own head. In addition, it showed a deeper quality we hadn’t seen before—the quality of an abused woman. By not standing up for herself in this scene and just letting this man slap her like that, it was clear that she had the unfortunate mentality of a person who had lived a life of abuse and may have even grown to believe she deserved it. 

Both characters reach their breaking points in this scene. Also, they start to show qualities that seem opposite to the characters we were introduced to at the start of the film. But this is another thing that makes the story so great. The characters are clearly multidimensional. It’s not that they suddenly changed personalities here, but rather it showed that they have inner demons which they worked hard to hide from the world in addition to having weaknesses and the ability to change and grow through stress and circumstance.

Breaking the characters like this advances the plot in several ways. The obvious one is that now Mrs. Mulwray’s secret is out in the open and something must happen next because of it. But also, it shakes the viewer up and potentially alters our perspective. For example, seeing Jake get physical with Mrs. Mulwray caused me to question him as a man and reconsider his likeability. I think that’s a natural reaction to watching a man slap a woman in the face like that. It also made me feel sorry for Mrs. Mulwray in an uncomfortable way because it was clear to me that she had deeper rooted issues than had been revealed.  But most dynamically, this scene changed the game. If you weren’t awake or already paying close enough attention up till now, you certainly woke up and started focusing. It was almost like Jake slapped Mrs. Mulwray, himself and the viewer in the face all at once.

I believe this scene was one of the most dramatic and successful scenes in the movie. Personally I didn’t expect it. While it caught me off guard in the moment, in retrospect it really worked. It shook me up but then everything about the narrative and the characters started coming together and the entire story started making sense.

Hey! What’s “Up”?

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Up is a very charming story with characters who are lovable, engaging and honest and a plot and pace which keep our attention. We are drawn in through memories and emotions and then swept away on a journey with our protagonist, a grumpy old man named Carl. And much like many non-animated films starring grumpy old men (and women), we learn early on that Carl didn’t start out that way and it takes an adventure, a cute kid (and a dog) to help fix it.

Right from the start, Docter, Peterson and McCarthy establish characters who grab our attention and pull us effortlessly into their story. In the first 25 pages, in addition to our protagonist Carl (our adventurous kid/responsible adult/crabby old man protagonist), we also meet energetic/enthusiastic Ellie (Carl’s lost love), Charles Muntz (the childhood idol), Russell (the kid who reminds our protagonist of himself as a kid and who adds tension and gives Carl someone to love) and the construction workers, real estate developer, police and nursing home agents (the bad guys).

Even though the characters are animated and adorable, they have been given realistic qualities and real life problems. While destruction and cartoons have been cohabitating forever, it’s unusual to have a married couple in an animated film experience such dramatic and heartbreaking real life situations (i.e., trouble conceiving, miscarriage, money problems, growing old, forgotten dreams, sickness/loss/death). By giving the characters human qualities and real life experiences and feelings, we as viewers empathize with them just like they were real people and we come to understand why our protagonist became this grumpy old man. This is effective because once empathy has been achieved we become locked in and invested.

In this week’s lecture, we learned the importance of actions over dialogue: “Not just dialogue, but also your characters’ actions: think of the volumes of information that can be conveyed by a glare, a question that is met with silence, or a character simply watching another character’s actions.” In Up, action (past and present) weaves the setting. “Each scene should contain only the absolutely essential information (so as not to distract from the overall plot and theme).” In the first 25 pages, we are given a lot of information in a short period of time, but it’s done well and all of it is critical to the story. Simple actions like Ellie pushing Carl onto the beam show how much he needed her “pushing him.” And in the moment when Carl touches Ellie’s handprint on the mailbox and smiles, he doesn’t need to say anything to show us how much he loves and misses her.

Just like a real person mourning the death of a spouse, Carl loses his spirit and zest for life. He was, at one time, in love with life, adventure and he had a charismatic woman to share his life. They shared their dreams but then they grew up and life got in the way. When Ellie died, their dreams fueled by her energy died with her and Carl is left mourning her loss and the loss of those dreams. It is easy to understand why he fights so hard to keep his home from being torn down by developers; it’s all he has left and his memories of Ellie are tied up in the house especially since it’s the one tangible thing they achieved together. By the time we get to Plot Point 1 and Carl makes the decision to launch the balloons and fly away with the house, we want him to learn to live again and we are ready to float away with him.  

At times, the pace and fluidity of the dialogue kept things moving (i.e., Ellie’s rapid fire dialogue) and at other times removing the dialogue altogether slowed things down and forced us to pay close attention to the actions and details. Even though we were given a lot of information in the setup, the elements were easily digestible and critical to the story. Giving the details and emotions efficiently allows the story to get to the point—or the adventure—faster. This is especially effective when we consider that animated films are watched by both children and adults. The kids may be watching primarily for the excitement and effects but this film gives adults everything they need, too, with a relevant and captivating story full of drama and emotion.

The writers also utilized parallels to set up the story and bring the characters to life. For example, we have physical, mental and emotional parallels between Carl and his childhood idol Charles Muntz and between Carl and Russell. It was like meeting three generations. After all Carl had been through in the first 25 pages of the script, we want him to go on that big adventure he’d promised Ellie and to succeed where his childhood idol failed. We also want him to take Russell (the son he and Ellie never had) with him so he doesn’t eventually wind up on the same path.  

Props also play a huge role in helping us get to know the characters and advancing the plot. Seemingly simple things like the ties showing the passage of time or the torn adventure badge and the missing scout merit badge showing a failed attempt at a goal and, of course, the balloons and the house itself were so symbolic to the ups and downs of Carl and Ellie’s life. And perhaps the most important prop is Ellie’s adventure book which showed Ellie and Carl’s hopes and dreams and we see Carl looking at it with regret for what wasn’t yet accomplished.

The beauty of Up is that everyone can relate to this story. We have all experienced some sort of loss in our lives and it is easy to imagine failing at a dream or feeling left behind, lost, lonely and stuck. Through charming characters, realistic situations and some savvy storytelling techniques, the writers bring Up’s characters to life and make us believe that anything is possible.