“Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” (2011)
I went into “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” (2011), directed by Stephen Daldry, fully intending to hate it for being cloying and pretentious – just based on the title and concept, not based on reading any reviews (although after reading some reviews, others have asserted after seeing it that it was pretentious). I dunno; I liked it a lot better than I thought I would. For one, it made me really re-think my long-held conviction that I don’t want children. If I could have a child as extraordinary as Oskar Schell (13-year-old Thomas Horn, in his film debut after being spotted by producers on “Kids Jeopardy”), then maybe I do.
Oskar is a child with Asperger’s Syndrome/Disorder (there is debate on what to call this; some say disorder so that families can get medical and psychosocial support services, others say syndrome to characterize it as a “difference”, not a pathology). Oskar is depicted as having a particularly loving relationship with his brilliant father, who appears to really understand his son, as opposed to his mother, Linda Schell (Sandra Bullock), who appears not to. “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” is the story of the loss of Oskar’s father in the World Trade Center towers, through the eyes of Oskar’s attempts to cope with the loss, in his own complex ways.
Our society is being asked to brave our own fears to view one of the first films that directly addresses the emotional impact on a family caused by the 9/11 attacks, after “United 93” (2006), (if I’m forgetting any others, please leave word in the Comments section, folks! J). Even ten years after 9/11, some say “it’s too soon” for such a fictional depiction of people’s pain. But will it EVER be long enough to not be reminded of, as Oskar says, “The Worst Day”? The other warning bell is Tom Hanks, as Oskar’s somewhat-too-perfect dad Thomas Schell. All of Hanks’ movies run the risk of having that “give me an Oscar for this kind of sentiment, will ya, folks” feel to them, which many people find presumptuous. (It’s a matter of taste; I have a high tolerance for Hanks-Film-style sentiment, but I know many fine people who don’t.)
From a mental health perspective, this film (which I will just call “ELIC” now) broaches many important, sensitive, and even taboo subjects: The trauma of 9/11, Asperger’s Disorder, parenting a child with Asperger’s Disorder (which is its own challenge), the risks of urban living, divorce, the trauma of the Holocaust (Oskar’s elderly neighbor, presumably also his unacknowledged grandfather, is mute after witnessing his parents being killed during World War II), the beauty of living in New York City (really; I’m not being sarcastic here), how one goes on with life after setbacks, traumas, and losses, and how one confronts their fears in order to move on with life. For taking on that many important themes, plus maybe some others (such as relationships – between partners, or between parent and child), “ELIC” deserves a lot of credit for tackling many subjects with relatively little confusion.
I’ve only worked with people with Asperger’s Syndrome/Disorder (and their parents) a little bit in my practice (my practice is comprised mostly high-functioning adults, often creative professionals or small business owners), but the depiction of Oskar struck many familiar chords of real life for these folks. Wikipedia’s overview of the disorder is informative for the curious: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asperger_syndrome
But suffice to say Asperger’s is “characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction, alongside restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests. It differs from other autism spectrum disorders by its relative preservation of linguistic and cognitive development. Although not required for diagnosis, physical clumsiness and atypical use of language are frequently reported” (Wikipedia).
We see many aspects of this in little Oskar’s behavior. The way he interacts with the various people on his “Black List” (people whose last names are “Black”, in an effort to find the lock that fits a key Oskar’s father left behind in a small envelope marked “Black”) shows the odd but somewhat charming interactional style of people with Asperger’s, even if he tends to be long-winded with questionable attention from others (ahem). Oskar’s sensitivity to sounds/lights and need for calming rituals (carrying his tambourine) and his obsession with detail of his interests (mapping his route to visits on his Black List, oxymorons, language games) are also classic symptoms.
I’ve also worked with the parents of someone with Asperger’s, and as Oskar’s mother, Sandra Bullock portrays this beautifully – from initial confusion on how to relate to her son, to the hurt of hearing her child’s un-empathic verbalizations, to intense worry about his well-being, to extreme dedication and ultimately an especially pure parent-child love. While Linda’s relationship to Oskar is initially presented as stilted and distant, it is only through Linda’s brave journey to become connected to the son she feels “disconnected” to, and to learn to think like he thinks (by shadowing his visits to people on the Black List), is she able to establish the bond that will be critical to Oskar’s security, growth, safety, and subsequent development in life, a bond previously held exclusively by Oskar’s father. Most of us don’t have Asperger’s, but it’s certain that we ALL need someone in our lives who “gets us” just the same. For Oskar, the only people who are worthy of his love and attention are the ones who make enough effort to get to know him, even if on his terms – which we see Linda Schell, Abby Black (the wonderful Viola Davis), William Black (Jeffrey Wright), the Renter (Max von Sydow), various other people on the Black List, and the Grandmother (Zoe Caldwell) do.
The theme of GUILT runs throughout the film. Oskar’s grandfather (Max Von Sydow, finally looking as old now as his age makeup made him look 40 years ago as “The Exorcist” (1972)), referred to as “The Renter” (in his grandmother’s apartment next door), is mute from the trauma and guilt of surviving his parents’ death. Oskar confesses to William Black his intense guilt at not picking up the phone on the last answering machine message from his father from the collapsing World Trade Center tower. Linda has guilt about not being the idealized parent; her husband was. Supporting characters like Abby Black and her husband/ex, William (Jeffrey Wright), depict the conflicting emotions and guilt of divorce, and a montage of people on the Black List depicts their reactions of grief and guilt in response to Oskar’s letter to each of them.
Another theme involves Oskar confronting his many FEARS – of loud noises, of meeting strangers, of public transportation, of closed spaces, and even of the swing-set in Central Park that his father introduces him to in a flashback. After 9/11, perhaps the ultimate in fears coming true for Oskar’s family, confronting his fears is the only way to preserve his connection to his father. Ultimately, the film’s final scene of Oskar gently overcoming his fear of the swing, moves us to know that while awful things can happen, and losses can occur, we all need to still enjoy the small beauties of a swing on a sunny day and a liberating leap into the air.
I found myself at times during “ELIC” weeping not at the events actually being depicted on screen in the story, but just “around” and “about” the almost incomprehensible ramifications of 9/11. I work with several people who were traumatized, to varying degrees, at Ground Zero that day. I think 9/11 is the disaster of our generation, much like Pearl Harbor was for my parents or grandparents, or the Titanic or Hindenberg before that (1912 and 1937, respectively). Films like “ELIC” put the 9/11 attack in perspective of how many individual lives were affected by the losses. Oskar Schell might be fictional, but the pain and loss of children alone, plus countless other loved ones, are all too real.
Movies help us process our emotions. They are a mirror of our collective life, and help us, in a relatively safe, contained time and space, to explore and attempt to make sense of what goes on around us (much like a therapy session). Ultimately, I think “ELIC”’s message is not about the losses of 9/11, as important as that theme is. I think it’s about the love of a child – whether from one parent, another parent, a grandparent, or a stranger. As played by Thomas Horn, it’s hard not to love “Oskar Schell”, and everyone like him we should be so privileged to ever know.