Indeed, the Academy likes an inspirational tale born out of hardship and woe – just look at 2009’s Award-winning The Blind Side. That said, while some will argue that this film borders on exploitation by using 9/11 events and imagery to bolster any worthiness, it’s still ultimately deeply affecting as it tries to make sense of an emotive subject through a young boy’s eyes that’s so senseless in a unique and poignant manner.
Fans of Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel of the same name may beg to differ, but as a beautifully shot, standalone film, the acting is so impressive from newcomer Thomas Horn as 11-year-old Oskar, carrying a myriad of emotions on very young and capable shoulders, regardless of obvious irritable character traits along the way.
Young Oskar shares a fun and adventurous side with his doting father Thomas (Tom Hanks) who gives him puzzles and adventure trails to solve. But on 9/11, Oskar’s idyllic and loving world comes crashing down, and he is left without his number one fan and living with his grieving mother (Sandra Bullock), who he feels remote from. After looking through his late father’s things one day, he discovers a key in an envelope labelled with the name ‘Black’. Believing this is one last quest set by his father Oskar goes on an adventure to track down the lock that fits the key, enlisting the help of his grandmother’s mysterious ‘Renter’, a mute old man (played by Oscar-nominated Max von Sydow).
Using actual, harrowing footage of the Twin Towers in the film is a bold and some might say insensitive move by Daldry, and it is debatable whether one shot involving Bullock looking out at the devastated Towers was necessary at all – never mind the ‘falling man’ imagery. Although any other horrific event like a fatal car accident could trigger the same level of grief and deeper questions in a child, Foer’s story is as a result of 9/11 events.
Perhaps, as Oskar is such an intellectually curious and sensitive child – possibly having Asperger syndrome, the trigger of a greater, more unifying event is rendered necessary still in the film version, and nothing about this adaptation is ever allowed to be a ‘comfortable’ viewing experience either – it’s a stark coming-of-age account. Both young and old in this actually have the same unifying fear to conquer and healing process to go through, which is precisely why it strikes a chord, pulling it out of the usual troubled youth salvation film.
Although the adult players in this perform solidly on the periphery as expected, allowing a capable Horn to take centre-stage, sadly there are times when your sympathies for the boy character wane as he ventures down the quirky, oh-so-convenient ‘special kid’ route to suggest he is more extraordinary than any other child who experienced loss at the time. Nevertheless, it is a refreshing change – away from the PlayStation generation – to see imagination let rip in a satisfying little adventure that simultaneously highlights the life and soul of those who make up the Big Apple. Indeed even though his mother’s tidy explanations at the end seem a little incredulous, these still feel a necessary part of the family’s healing process after Oskar’s crueller outbursts. There are elements that do not quite translate, such as why Oskar’s grandmother does not reveal the true identity of ‘The Renter’ to start with, that require a suggestive take on the viewer’s part, but could also be deemed another ‘sub-mystery’ to solve.
Although watching this film will prove shamelessly premeditated and excessive at times while tragic and heartfelt at others, its mixed bag of finely balanced emotions do not fail to move you on the whole – rather disappointing, tear-jerking ditch ending aside. Above all else, an intrepid Daldry has undoubtedly delivered an exciting prospect for tomorrow to watch in Horn, earnestly cutting his teeth in a highly controversial first project.