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Unusually bright and sensitive nine year old Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) adores his father Thomas (Tom Hanks) who encourages him to explore his world. Oskar's world falls apart when his father dies in the World Trade Centre terror attack on September 11, 2001. When he finds a key in a small envelope among his father's things, he sets out to discover what it's for, as a means of keeping his father's spirit close. But there are secrets he hasn't even told his mum, Linda (Sandra Bullock) as he teams up with a mysterious stranger (Max Von Sydow) renting a room from his grandma (Zoe Caldwell) in an adjacent apartment block, in his frantic search.

Review by Louise Keller:
If it's easy to find, it's not worth finding, says Thomas Schell (Tom Hanks), father to nine year old Oskar (Thomas Horn) with whom he has a special rapport. Curiosity is the gift that Thomas gives Oskar, through the games they play together. They have lively oxymoron wars and reconnaissance expeditions requiring analytical thought and tenacious investigations. It's a bit like amateur detective work. But then comes what Oskar calls 'The Worst Day', the shocking events of 9/11, when their relationship is abruptly and cruelly ended. A mysterious key is the trigger that sets the troubled boy on a journey - to come to terms with the unfathomable.

This is the premise of Stephen Daldry's knock-out drama that has every bit as much emotional clout as his highly lauded Billy Elliot in 2000. It is difficult to know whether we will ever be ready to relive the events of 9/11 and here we are asked not only to do so, but to embrace a precocious, eccentric child whose mission impossible is to sort out his life. It's a potent and emotionally explosive film that I connected with deeply.

Eric Roth has crafted a wonderful screenplay from Jonathan Safran Foer's novel that reveals the vulnerable inner voice of the young boy who not only loses his father, but bears a heavy burden of guilt. Alexandre Desplat's melodic and unforgettable music is a mirror to the emotional journey we take, with musical phrases often sounding like question marks as the search for the unknowable becomes more and more critical.

When we first meet Oskar, he is talking about death, imagining a time when skyscrapers might be designed beneath the ground to house dead people. These are morbid thoughts for a youngster, but there is nothing ordinary about Oskar. Super intelligent and super sensitive (it is not surprising that he was tested for Aspersers Syndrome), he has always been fearful.

Suddenly for the first time since his father's death, when he finds a key in a small yellow envelope inscribed with the word 'Black' in his father's dressing room, he has a purpose. If there's a key, there's a lock, he tells himself. If there's a name, there's a person. Now the boy who has always been too shy to speak to people works out an ambitious and ingenious plan to contact each of the 472 people in New York City with the surname of Black. He remembers what his father used to say: If you don't try, you'll never know.

In his first film (he was discovered when he won Jeopardy during Kids Week), 13-year-old Thomas Horn is extraordinary as Oskar. His self imposed isolation, his terror at facing reality and the impaired relationship with his mother (Sandra Bullock) are all utterly convincing. He is the film's greatest asset. As Oskar sets out on his expedition to solve the riddle of the key, it is no easy task to convince us it is normal for a young boy to carry a gas mask, binoculars, journal, camera and his calming tambourine, with bells that jangle with a melancholy note. But he does.

When Oskar finally blurts out what is in his heart, it is to a man who doesn't speak and ironically his final secret is revealed to a total stranger. The film reaches its peak in the riveting scenes between Oskar and the lodger (Max Von Sydow) who lives in his grandmother's (Zoe Caldwell) apartment, Von Sydow's soulful face expressing so much more than words ever could. Tom Hanks is wonderfully cast as Oskar's dad and in carefully positioned flashbacks, we get a sense of the easy, laid-back and joyous relationship between father and son. It's as though they have their own language. Sandra Bullock also delivers great compassion in the difficult role of Oskar's rejected mother. Look out for Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright in small, but important roles.

Time frames are shuffled but we are never confused. Some may find the rawness of emotion that is naturally evoked from the events of 9/11 difficult to deal with; others may find it manipulative. In any event, they form a heartbreaking emotional platform for the story and the journey that we share with Oskar. If you are looking for a big emotional hit, this film delivers.

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
A touching and complex father-son story driven by the 9/11 attack on New York, this adaptation of a novel shows the rich origins of the material. In fact, the story weaves together two father-son stories and contrasts them; Oskar (Thomas Horn) and his father Thomas (Tom Hanks) is the contemporary relationship at the centre and Thomas and his father - missing all his life - is the second.

But Oskar is no ordinary 9 year old; highly intelligent and open minded thanks to his father, Oskar is also deeply sensitive. Thomas Horn delivers a truly impressive performance, adorned with the full range of emotional responses and boyish wilfulness. His determination and his ability to absorb and use information is almost too good to be true. His love for his father is the ultimate storytelling driver, its power feeding all the emotional channels of the film.

Tom Hanks makes a perfect father, teaching and lovingly cajoling his son, so much so we are left to ponder the film's implicit contradiction that he never even knew his own father - yet he turned out to be a model one himself.

Sandra Bullock plays a low key role until the last act, when her mothering nature gets a chance to shine. Zoe Caldwell is a likeably granny, and Max Von Sydow is superb as The Renter in her apartment who cannot or will not speak.

A brilliant support cast adds authenticity to the film's sprawling 'mystery' element as Oskar looks for the key to the key, as it were, with Viola Davis, Jeffrey Wright and John Goodman in relatively small but essential roles. Davis and Wright play husband and wife, interrupted by Oskar on his single minded quest at the moment of their separation. This has a payoff at the end which some might see as an unnecessary flourish in a film already heavy with sentiment.

We are not spared the harrowing moments of what Oskar refers to as 'the worst day', images we can never forget. The events in the story are organically tied to this catastrophe; there is no easy way to tell it.

Director Stephen Daldry honed his prowess for stories about boys on a mission with his worldwide hit, Billy Elliot (2000); here, the stakes are different but the need for audiences to feel the film is again paramount. We empathise with Oskar and we urge him on to find some closure. We see his hurt, his rage and his grief, but we also see him maturing.

According to the briefing notes for the film, "Daldry was struck most of all by Oskar's subjective point of view. An unusual child with arrestingly high intelligence yet eccentric and obsessive behaviors that might put him on the autistic spectrum, Oskar describes the world around him with his own particular mix of naiveté and insight, nervousness and boldness, incomprehension and a need to understand. Most of all, Daldry was intrigued by how this POV, just like a child's imagination, combined random thoughts, flashes of memory, lists of ideas and impromptu fantasies with pure emotion - all at a moment when life has irrevocably changed for Oskar's family and the world around him."

The filmmaker manages to capture all this thanks to an adroit adaptation by Eric Roth and his directorial sensibilities.

The 9/11 wound is still open for many, especially in New York and America generally; this story wants to be balm for that wound; and in that it succeeds.

Published June 27, 2012

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(US, 2011)

CAST: Tom Hanks, Thomas Horn, Sandra Bullock, Zoe Caldwell, Max Von Sydow, John Goodman, Viola Davis, Geoffrey Wright, Paul Klementowitz, Stephen Henderson

PRODUCER: Scott Rudin

DIRECTOR: Stephen Daldry

SCRIPT: Eric Roth (novel by Jonathan Safran Foer)


EDITOR: Claire Simpson


RUNNING TIME: 129 minutes


AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: February 23, 2012



DVD DISTRIBUTOR: Warner Home Video

DVD RELEASE: June 27, 2012

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