Wrestling Jonathan Safran Foer’s tome about a boy’s reaction to his father’s 9/11 death onto the screen can’t have been a picnic. A tricky book laden with kudos, a kid as protagonis and an oh-so-sensitive subject matter? A bit of a tall order. Yet director Stephen Daldry has crafted an adroitly involving, emotionally intense experience.
His tender, pared-back take on the book gets right up inside the experiences of 11-year-old Oskar (Thomas Horn), a quirky kid on a quest to find the lock for a key left behind by his father. Mining added punch and poignancy, Daldry and scribe Eric Roth slice into Oskar’s treks with memories of his father Thomas (Tom Hanks) and flashbacks.
However, being in Oskar’s head isn’t comfortable, for him or us. Newbie Horn gives a fierce performance of such intensity that it rivets and irritates all at once. When Max von Sydow’s mute old lodger joins his search, showing pain expressed wordlessly, it’s a blessed relief.
As is Sandra Bullock’s unhappy mother, enduring Oskar’s absences and angry cry of “I wish it were you instead of him” with flinching patience. But in the scramble to wrap up the story the movie shifts from finely balanced emotion to sentimentality.
Despite a big reveal combining lip-wobbling simplicity and impact, the tidy ending becomes the tear-jerking life lesson that this film should be a classy cut above.