Jonathan Safran Foer’s acclaimed novel about a boy whose father was killed in the World Trade Center on 9/11 has been brought to the screen with great sensitivity and heart. Newcomer Thomas Horn plays Oskar, whose ferocious intellect overwhelms his social skills and may be on the autism spectrum. His father (Tom Hanks) understands him best and it is in their time together that Oskar feels most alive and most at home. Oskar’s happiest moments are solving the puzzles set by his father, whether oxymoron contests or treasure hunts. After his father’s death, Oskar searches for the final challenge he is sure his father must have left behind for him, some way to make sense his loss. He finds a blue vase in his father’s closet and when he breaks it, he finds a key in an envelope that says “Black.” He decides to visit everyone in the phone book named Black to see if he can solve at least one mystery in the midst of the senseless tragedy that has devastated his family, his city, and the world.
Oskar’s mother (Sandra Bullock) is withdrawn, scared, and angry. She never had her husband’s gift for reaching Oskar and making him feel safe. As Oskar goes off in search of his father, in a way he seems to be searching for his mother, too. The different people named Black that he tracks down feel like pieces of a puzzle, each unidentifiable and indistinct but somehow, put together, a picture of a piece of something whole begins to emerge. One of the people who opens the door to Oskar is played by Viola Davis in a performance of exquisite beauty. In her brief moments on screen she creates a character of such depth and complexity and humanity that she illuminates the entire film.
Oskar’s grandmother lives across the street and he can see her apartment from his window and communicate with her by walkie-talkie. She takes in a new, mysterious tenant known only as “the renter” (Max von Sydow) and Oskar goes to investigate. The renter is mute. He has “yes” and “no” tattooed on his palms and writes what he wants to say in a notebook. He agrees to accompany Oskar on his visits to Blacks.
Oskar finds an answer that is not what he was looking for or hoping for. But looking for something so far from home makes it possible for him to see what was in front of him all along that he could not face. He is able to tell his own story, finally. He is able to hear the stories of the renter and his mother. And it is only then that he can find the real message his father left behind.
Without speaking a word, Sydow conveys a sense of gravity and compassion, more eloquent than all of Oskar’s words. “The renter” balances Oskar — old and young, silence and constant talking, hiding and seeking. Both are damaged by the trauma of world events with the most personal impact and each expands the other’s spirit with a sense of possibility. The final revelation from Oskar’s mother proves the old saying that only a broken heart can hold the world.
Parents should know that this movie concerns a boy whose father was killed in the World Trade Center on 9/11 and the impact of the loss on the boy and his mother. There are references to other tragedies, some disturbing images of the terrorist attack, and characters use some strong language.
Family discussion: How did learning about the key help Oskar understand his loss? Why didn’t the renter speak? Why didn’t anyone tell Oskar who he was?
If you like this, try: “Everything is Illuminated,” based on a book by the same author