At least a half hour before it's made clear that Oskar (Thomas horn), the 10-year-old boy at the center of the new film Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, might be on the autism spectrum, I'd jotted something down about the possibility in my notebook. It's not that I'm so terribly perceptive; it's that I know a lot of people on that spectrum. This is important, because it might lend perspective to my reaction to what's going to be a polarizing film. Some people will find it a deeply emotional experience, a cathartic remembrance of 9/11 as seen through the experiences of a boy in tremendous pain who doesn't have the emotional resources needed to deal with it. Others will find it shallow and exploitative, taking advantage of one of our greatest national tragedies.
Before I tell you which side I fall on, let's talk a little about the movie, which opens Friday, Jan. 20. First, it's directed by Steven Daldry, who also made Billy Elliott, The Hours and The Reader, all of which earned him Best Director Oscar nominations. Based on those titles, you already have a sense of what kind of movie this is going to be. Yes, it's about the fall out from 9/11, because Thomas (Tom Hanks), Oskar's father, was in one of the towers when they came down. Oskar, a strange, awkward little boy, no longer has the one stable piece of his life that he depended on. His mother (Sandra Bullock) is around, but she's shattered, as well, and his grandmother (Zoe Caldwell) is getting on in age. Thomas was a wonderful father, celebrating Oskar's eccentricities, encouraging him in all the right ways and regularly creating treasure hunts and clues for his son, which made him think about the world in appropriate and innovative ways.
A year after 9/11, Oskar sneaks into his father's closet, where he finds a mysterious key, which leads him to believe his father laid out one final puzzle for him to solve before he died. It isn't long before he's spending every weekend combing the five boroughs, visiting strangers, occasionally accompanied by an old man, played nicely by Max von Sydow, who cannot speak. Oskar's desperate for answers, desperate to learn what his father might have been trying to tell him—desperate for his father in every way.
Now, I'm a cynic. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is precisely the sort of movie I usually dislike. But I let myself be taken on the film's emotional journey, and while I understand charges of exploitation, I didn't experience that at all. Instead, it reminded me of that period shortly after 9/11, when there was a sense of unity among us, despite our political beliefs. So much of this movie is about people dealing with their own grief by being kind and generous to a little boy who needs them to be caring.
Let's face it—it's been a shit stretch since 2001. We've faced two wars, economic catastrophe and the ongoing bludgeoning of the middle class. It's an ugly time, and at this crucial, election-year crossroads, we've become Lincoln's divided nation. I don't expect this movie to change that, but I do hope it will remind some folks about what is and isn't important.
It's not that this is the perfect film—Hanks' character is too perfect a father, and when you meet characters early on played by recognizable actors, you know they're going to play a larger part later. But Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close left me exhausted, emotional and hopeful, something movies rarely do for me these days.