Lessons From Home Alone

I rewatched Home Alone recently for the first time in years, and I was fascinated to see how late in the movie Kevin's traps came into play. In my memory, Kevin's booby traps vs. the Wet Bandits is the bulk of movie; in reality, it's just Act 3, and not even all of that.

There are actually a lot of other lessons to draw from Home Alone (particularly when to explain details, when to put them in the background, and when to skip over them), but I want to focus on its act structure, because I think it's actually really key to understanding the wild success of the movie - and it was a wild success, staying in theaters for something like nine months.1)

The movie can be cut pretty cleanly into three Acts, with the first Act being Kevin at home with his family, the second Act being Kevin fending for himself alone, and the third Act being Kevin fending off the Wet Bandits' home invasion. I think you can also draw a relatively clear line between Act 2a and 2b, with the division being the moment the Wet Bandits realize Kevin is home alone.

But so what? A lot of movies fit cleanly into three acts, right? Yes, but for a lot of them it comes down to finding the moments of division. Like how I split 2a and 2b by a moment rather than by the content of the (sub-)Acts themselves, a lot of the time we divide acts up by finding the moment the story transitions, because the Act as a whole doesn't have so clear a motif. In Home Alone, though, each Act has a very clear motif, to the point where you could probably guess from any random frame of the movie which Act you're in. Is Kevin with his family? You're in Act 1. Is Kevin separated from his family? You're in Act 2. Is Kevin fighting the Bandits? You're in Act 3. In fact, even the B-plot of Kevin's mother trying to get home is pretty cleanly divided in the same way; she spends Act 1 getting to Paris, Act 2 trying to get back to the States, and Act 3 with John Candy's polka crew on the road home.

Like I said, I think this has a lot to do with why the movie works so well. While it's definitely not the only factor, the fact that each Act has such a clear identity and destination does the story a significant service. At least as important, though, is how inevitably each Act builds to the next - Act 1 does an incredible amount of work to establish why Act 2 can happen, and Act 2 pulls its weight in establishing the Wet Bandits' motivation and Kevin's capacity for self-reliance, both of which provide the energy for Act 3.

I'm a big fan of… I don't want to call it nonstandard structures, but maybe that's accurate. Actually, it might be even more accurate to say I'm something of an opponent to the standard 3 Act Structure that's defaulted to in Hollywood - not that I think it's bad, just that it's overused. But I think Home Alone does a great job in showcasing why it's overused - when it fits the story, it just works so dang well. Each Act supports the next and builds upon the previous in a way that leads to them all becoming more than the sum of their parts.

This is why, I think, I remember Act 3 as the entire movie; because the entire movie is designed specifically for Act 3, it makes Act 3 inevitable, and it is resolved in Act 3. There is no question in the movie that gets answered before Act 3, and no question that doesn't get answered in Act 3. This leads to an immensely satisfying conclusion that sticks with you.

Now, again, I don't think this is the only factor in the movie's success; everything that comes before is also remarkably satisfying on its own, the casting is sublime, and the movie balances schmaltz with comedy in a manner very becoming of its Christmas setting. But it is the linchpin that lets everything work together so perfectly.