WHEN Hal McElroy, one of Australia’s most prolific film producers, read the play script The Sum of Us by David Stevens, he described it as “absolutely irresistible” – the two words every aspiring playwright wants to hear from a producer after just one read.
The desire to create a film of Stevens’ script was so firmly implanted that it took only four years to bring the work to the screen as one of the iconic Australian films of the 1990s.
Inspired by my first post on dramatic structure (a breakdown of the plot of William Rose’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner), I embarked on an analysis of The Sum of Us, not by watching the film, but by reading its screenplay, to see how closely it follows the classic five-part story arc widely purported to be the key to all good storytelling.
With flashbacks that shed light on the family which is the centre of the story, and regular breaking of the ‘fourth wall‘ (the imaginary barrier between a character and their audience), The Sum of Us presents as a less linear story than my first subject, and great fodder to observe how another writer might have bent ‘the rules’ in interesting ways.
Here’s what I found … beware, there are spoilers.
Exposition – “He hasn’t been this excited for ages”
The exposition must introduce us to the characters and show who is the protagonist (the hero) and the antagonist (the anti-hero, or ‘villain’); and the protagonist must be called to action, posing a question so interesting that we are gripped.
At the age of 24 Jeff Mitchell remembers his grandmother fondly as a woman with boundless love and energy for her grandchildren. He’s a plumber who lives in suburban Sydney with his widowed father Harry, a ferry captain. Jeff (the protagonist) is getting ready to go out, with the strong chance of meeting that someone special at the pub that night. In the most loving, accepting manner, it’s Harry (the antagonist) who spills the beans that his son’s ‘someone special’ will be a man, not a woman. The call to action is Jeff’s memory of his grandmother’s great love for her partner, Mary; posing the big question: How did this obviously straight, typical Australian father become so accepting of his gay son?
Rising Action – “How can you be too bloody domestic?”
The rising actions are those the antagonist uses to thwart the protagonist and show us who both of them really are.
On his way to meet Greg, a gardener, at the local gay-friendly pub, Jeff reminds the audience that his Grandmother was a lesbian in a very long-term relationship with his “Aunt Mary”. Their kind of love is something he aspires to. Harry, meanwhile, calls Joyce, whom he met through a dating agency, and arranges to meet her for lunch. Jeff and Greg get on like a house on fire and make their way home, but Harry proceeds to make Greg so welcome that a night of passion becomes a scene of domestic normality, the likes of which Greg, with his homophobic father, has never experienced. Jeff’s date is ruined by his well-meaning but overbearing Dad.
Climax – “If only you’d been honest”
The climax must be the start of a battle between the protagonist and the antagonist, and a turning point after which there is no going back for either.
Harry and Joyce’s relationship develops so easily it puts Jeff and Greg’s false start into sharp perspective. Jeff is staying at home, depressed. Harry reveals his relationship with Joyce and declares he will marry her only if she and his son get on, although he has not yet told her that Jeff is gay. Jeff is thrilled for his father, but when Joyce visits, she innocently stumbles across the gay magazines Harry bought for Jeff, is affronted by the presence of homosexuality in the family she was seriously considering becoming a part of, and leaves. As the city celebrates New Years Eve, a deeply disappointed Harry has a stroke while watching the fireworks from the porch.
Falling Action – “I didn’t have the guts”
The falling action must play out the battle between the protagonist and the antagonist, allowing one of them to win. The winner defines the piece as a comedy or a tragedy.
When Harry wakes up in hospital, Jeff is there to comfort him, and immediately steps up to the plate as his father’s primary carer. Greg, meanwhile, gets thrown out of home for participating in Sydney’s Gay Mardi Gras. Despite being neutralised by his inability to speak or walk, Harry causes a scene at the supermarket in order that Jeff and Greg meet again. Joyce comes to visit Harry at home, and is confronted by the love the Mitchell family have for one another, and she leaves, acknowledging to herself that she has missed out on sharing in it. Harry ponders what it is to lose love, once it has been made.
Dénouement – “How do you say thankyou for love?”
The dénouement (“to untie”) must unravel all the conflict and bring everything to a sense of resolution. In a comedy, the protagonist is better off than when they started. In a tragedy, this is reversed. The big question posed in the exposition must be left answered.
Reminiscing on the core love of his family, Harry recalls the day that he and his brother separated his mother and her long-term partner Mary, in their old age, wondering what they would have said to one another the night before they knew they would never see one another ever again. On a day trip to the botanic gardens, Harry notices Greg is working there, and ensures the two men meet yet again. Jeff and Greg talk. Both men have been set free from the expectations and fears of their fathers, and there is a great sense that they’ll continue growing the love of the Mitchell family together
Picking the antagonist and protagonist in this screenplay was difficult – most of the characters are affable and it was hard to position one of them as an anti-hero. But it is Harry Mitchell, Jeff’s father, who unwittingly places the obstacles in the way of his son’s happiness, by being so very keen for his son to experience the joys of love as he defines it.
Jeff is not a classic protagonist either – in the climax he remains almost neutral and does not seem to ‘do battle’ with his father in the relationship stakes. This is because ‘the battle’ is a lot deeper in this plot than usual.
This is a story about relationships in the one family – there is Gran and Mary, separated tragically after forty years; there is Harry and Joyce, trying to rebuild love after losing it to death and divorce; and there is Jeff and Greg, attempting to start a relationship from scratch under conditions that are not favourable.
But these moments of guilt and inspiration are played-out through the father-son relationship of Jeff and Harry, and it’s the lessons that Gran taught these men which make the flashbacks in the script essential (especially the placement of Jeff’s boyhood recollection of Gran and Mary’s love right in the exposition), because they ultimately see Jeff and Harry through their own battle.
And it’s that discovery which answers the big question posed in the Exposition: it was Gran Mitchell’s courageous love that caused her son Harry to accept his son so unconditionally, and made him capable of taking emotional risks out of love for his son.
© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.