The 9/11 film is perhaps one of the most present and important genres that has emerged in the past decade. Films dealing with the horrific events of 9/11 may tackle the events themselves (Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, for example) or the direct aftermath (Spike Lee’s 25th Hour). Many films use the emotional impact of the 9/11 attacks as a catalyst for melodrama (2009’s Remember Me), while others opt to substitute alien invasions for the real-life disaster (remember Cloverfield?).
Very rarely, however, does a 9/11 film take on the emotional scar left on children following that fateful day. Up until now, Hollywood has missed the mark on capturing the fear and confusion that ran rampant amongst kids who witnessed the attacks, whether they lost a loved one or not. The new film Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, based on the popular novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, gives Hollywood the wake up call it needs. This story really resonates with those of us who remember being let out of school early and watching CNN with our parents. As one of these “9/11 kids,” it’s easy to say that Extremely Loud captures the amalgam of emotions that materialized on the day of the attacks, not to mention all of the days after the fact, stunningly accurately. This is a film that will be felt by all of us, whether or not we experienced the direct effects of that day.
The film’s young hero is Oskar Schell, played by newcomer Thomas Horn with candid emotion and an intelligence way beyond his years. Unlike kids his own age who play video games with their hordes of friends, Oskar wanders the streets of New York City alone searching for evidence of a sixth city borough as part of an expedition laid out for him by his father (an endearing Tom Hanks). This search for a sixth borough is just one of many expeditions carefully executed by Oskar’s father, and these games are the core of their adoring relationship. When his father dies in the Twin Towers, Oskar’s life shatters. Not only did the attack take away his father, but it also stole Oskar of the fervor he once had as he walked the streets of the city. He refuses to utilize any form of public transportation and can’t hear a car horn without jumping out of his skin.
Exactly a year after his father’s death, Oskar comes upon a key in his father’s untouched closet of trinkets. To honor his father’s memory, Oskar scours the nooks and crannies of the whole city to find the lock that might fit the key. With the help from an elderly mute man (Max von Sydow, whose silent performance will truly leave you speechless) who encourages Oskar with wise words worthy of fortune cookies, Oskar treks all over the city and meets countless kooky oddballs along the way. Viola Davis, most notably, makes a brief appearance as a Brooklynite who experiences a heavy loss of her own; her performance in her episode in the film is nothing short of heartbreaking. By the film’s conclusion, Oskar realizes that his expedition meant nothing and everything at the same time; he doesn’t find exactly what he set out to discover, but instead finds the courage to prevail and carry on the spirit of his father despite tragedy and loss.
If the plot sounds like just another calculated tear-jerker, that’s because it is. But despite the movie’s cheesiness and predictability, there’s no doubting that audiences will take the film to heart. As Oskar recounts the day of his father’s demise, we too recall our own memories of that day and our capacity for resilience. While the film is upheld by Hollywood heavyweights like Hanks, Davis and Sandra Bullock in shockingly barely-there roles, the real revelation here is Horn, whose portrayal of the highly observant and sensitive Oskar is perhaps one of the best performances from a young actor in recent memory. But what should really be noticed in this movie is the intricately crafted story by Safran Foer, whose ability to construct a story that is both timely and timeless is one that few contemporary storytellers can achieve.