The Language of Leaves by Michael Elsey | Script Revolution

The Language of Leaves

A boy with a distant father and a grieving mother awakens his creativity with the help of his hip artist aunt, a pass or fail science fair and the mystery of leaves.



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Top Six Finalist in the Blue Cat Screenwriting Contest
WriteMovies Contest #19 Seim-Finalist
Page Count: 91
Genre: DRAMA
This is a very dramatically effective piece of writing. It’s focused, disciplined, conveys a tremendous sense of place, and gives the reader a very well-defined look at an American family that is coming to grips with something tragic which shatters their otherwise routine existence. This felt like “A Robert Benton Film” while reading it; it’s one of those old-school ensemble dramas that’s about something many people can relate to, never going over the top or descending into something irrational or out of place. THE LANGUAGE OF LEAVES reminded me of something like ORDINARY PEOPLE or MANCHESTER BY THE SEA – it represented real life, or, in my eyes/ears, something that resembled a life that I can fully understand, and I would imagine many others would connect with material such as this.
Structurally, the script is clean as a whistle – things “happen” when they should, no loose ends are left dangling, and you receive plenty of emotional closure by the time the last page unfolds. I’m tempted to say that this is one of those scripts where a more obtuse reader might say, “Yeah, well, nothing happened.” THE LANGUAGE OF LEAVES is all about the sum of its parts, the bigger picture, and when distilled to individual moments, what I loved the most about it was who confident it was in terms of how it laid out the brotherly dynamic and how kids view their parents. I’ll say that I was WAITING for something BIG to happen after about the 30-35 page mark, because while professionally crafted and engaging all throughout, I was getting the sense that the flat trajectory was bound to be broken up at a certain point. And then – BOOM.
Now, full disclosure – my wife and I went through a miscarriage-esque situation a while back, so this script really hit me hard. And for anyone who has this past personal history, THE LANGUAGE OF LEAVES is going to impact them even more. I wasn’t necessarily prepared for Elisabeth to lose the baby, even though it’s subtly alluded to without hitting the audience over the head with warning-bell signals. I thought maybe her pregnancy might become complicated, or that the baby would be born, thus creating a new dynamic within the family. I kept picturing Mary-Louise Parker in the role of Elisabeth, and I think you’ve crafted a strong maternal figure with her, one that many people will easily recognize. Ditto Allen; he’s the dad that many people have had, and while I wonder if more could be done to give him a bit more dimension or personality, he seems like the sort of dad/husband that many people have come into contact with. THE LANGUAGE OF LEAVES very much understands the dynamics of family, and what it’s like to be a part of a family on a daily basis, through thick and thin.

The core ingredients of the script present good values and multi-layered characters, people who are capable of failure just as much as they are of success, and because they are people that feel organic, one becomes that much more invested in their struggles. Anytime a writer chooses to use something as inherently dramatic as miscarriage as a major plot point or twist or turning point, they run the risk of being called exploitive or lazy. Instead of coming across in that way in any shape or form, how you’ve structured the events in THE LANGUAGE OF LEAVES feels appropriate and earned, and the on-screen life you’re presenting feels cut from cloth that feels as if it comes from somewhere personal, as opposed to something that reads as tossed-off or contrived to make some sort of phony impact.
Telling the story through the POV of a child is always a bold decision, for any number of reasons. It opens the story up to a fresher perspective which is exciting for the audience, but it also places huge demands from the actor who is playing the lead character. Films of this nature are made or broken by how strong of kid-actor is chosen for the role, and because THE LANGUAGE OF LEAVES asks a lot from everyone, especially the youngsters, it would be imperative to have sensational casting up and down. The role of John is SO robust that it will require someone willing to “go there” as a performer, and when you’re dealing with “kids,” that can sometimes be a tall-order. But that’s for the casting department to figure out. I’m just mentioning it as it might be a deterrent to some lazy studio executive who is always looking for any chance to say “no,” however petty the reasoning might be. That’s what these people are trained to do – kick up their feet at their desk, not take too many chances, figure out every single way they can possibly say “no” to something, and pray that their colleagues DON’T find a piece of material that’s better than what they’re currently working on.
Overall, this is a very well-done piece of writing. It’s clean and clear, it tells a relatable story about characters that we care about, and it presents a filmmaker with the chance to tell a story that features very human characters who feel born of the world we inhabit. It’s low-key, it’s old-fashioned without feeling stodgy, and by the end, catharsis is felt for one and all, while the audience knows that there’s still work to be done in the lives of these characters before some of them are can be made fully whole again. This would be considered by many to be a “great writing sample,” but in this day and age, the homes for this sort of material are shrinking in availability – this strikes me as an Amazon or Netflix type film, especially Amazon (MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, LAST FLAG FLYING, and the upcoming BEAUTIFUL BOY serving as the proof that they respond to dramatic material such as LEAVES), though a studio or one of their art-film divisions would be wise to consider this for their slate.
While certainly not all 100% necessary, I think there’s possibly some room for:
Expanding upon Elisabeth’s character a bit more.
Finding even more dramatic juice with the school science fair/invention process
Make Allen a little bit more likable, or maybe he’s shaded just enough…?
Something “big” within the first ten pages? Some extra forward narrative momentum?
Placing this within the context of a defined period, and allowing for more period details?
The script could use for a few more individual lines of dialogue that “pop” off the page.

Submitted: May 16, 2020
Last Updated: July 19, 2020

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The Writer: Michael Elsey

Michael Elsey is an educational consultant and director of digital media by day for a nonprofit educational organization based in Chicago. He carves out hours of his night to write. Then time also has to be made for Netflix, The Criterion Channel and Hulu. His scripts have won a variety of screenwriting contests. His self published novel With or Without Pulp is available on Amazon. He is a member of the WGA West Independent Writers Caucus. He is currently finishing a second novel and fleshing out a treatment for another screenplay. Go to bio

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