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Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011)

"Before viewing" talks don't have spoilers, but since there's no "After viewing" talk for this one, comments may have spoilers. More»» by Randy Heffner

A father’s unique and creative care for his son, which is at the center of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, carries profound power of hope and healing — even when the father can’t be there. The film embodies this power strongly in its intertwining of timelines, its pacing, and especially in the lead character’s acting.

Oskar Schell, a nine-year-old in New York City, is somewhere between being a typical child and a child affected by Asperger’s. His father, Thomas, whether because of Oskar’s condition or because he would have done so anyway, spends enormous amounts of time with him, engaging Oskar’s imagination, sending him and going with him on adventures, and stretching him to grow new skills (especially social skills). When Thomas dies in the World Trade Center on 9/11, Oskar understandably withdraws, not ready to or unable to face the pain of realizing his father is gone. One day, he gains the courage to go into his father’s closet, which his mom has left untouched. There he finds exactly the sort of adventure-starting clue that his father used to leave: a key hidden in a vase. He makes and pursues an elaborate plan to hunt for what the key unlocks, using all of the skills that Thomas had taught him, and more. Running time: 129 min.

Because Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close takes us some distance from “normal everyday” experience, interweaves multiple stories and relationships, and tells its tale with intricacy and nuance, we can come away from it knowing that we just experienced something significant yet be hard-pressed to articulate just what we take away from it. Whatever it is, it is grounded in admirable parenting by Oskar’s father. It’s not just fun and joy and being together, Thomas loves Oskar by knowing him deeply and drawing him (as opposed to prodding him) into the individual, unique ways that Oskar needs to grow and how Oskar individually is able to grow. How can we creatively love and engage those around us, especially children, drawing them (and ourselves) toward something better? How might that sustain them when we’re not there?

Besides parenting as an underlying theme, EL&IC also profoundly explores loss and forgiveness, and not only loss through death. The character of Oskar’s intensity, born of his possible Asperger’s, brings more questions to the surface, or nearly to the surface, than might otherwise be. When we’ve lost someone, what is left to hold onto, and how shall we find and hold it? Focusing on the loss, what do we miss around us? Even now, as I frame these as questions the film explores, EL&IC leaves me thinking there’s more to its world that I can’t pull into words. The metaphor of the key is one of many starting points into deeper engagement with the film.

EL&IC is very much worth the time. From screenplay to acting to cinematography to editing to direction and more, the filmcraft is excellent. Thomas Horn’s intensity as Oskar is key to the film, and the editing of a couple of his extended monologues is a unique and strong aspect of the film. Perhaps the film is not flawless, but still I could go on with strong points.

EL&IC is very much worth the time, despite the fact that many reviewers panned it. I think many did not take the effort to understand Oskar and how Asperger’s might affect him. However, those touched closely by 9/11 should consider whether the time is right for them to see it. Though there are strong images of 9/11, I would say the film’s emotional depth is more to be considered in deciding whether to go. For anyone who lives with close personal aftermath of 9/11, Oskar’s journey, and the people he meets along the way, can be a healing force, but if the time is not right for you, it may only open old wounds.

The film centers on an intense emotional journey. Set as follow-on to 9/11, it includes images of the Towers, the fires, and people falling. There is a small bit of language, though the strongest bits are cut off.

  • Director: Stephen Daldry
  • Screenplay: Eric Roth, based on novel by Jonathan Safran Foer
  • Leads: Thomas Horn, Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Zoe Caldwell, Max von Sydow
  • Cinematography: Chris Menges
  • Music: Alexandre Desplat

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