"Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" isn't exactly a favorite to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, but it's my personal favorite for a film that shows not only the courage of children but the courage of parents.
In the movie, based on the Jonathan Safran Foer novel, an 11-year-old boy struggles to come to terms with his father's death on 9/11 by constructing an elaborate quest to find the lock that matches an unmarked key found in his father's closet. It's a childish, magical fantasy -- that there will be a message from father to son in whatever safe deposit or lock box it fits. But he pursues it with the ingenious, literal-minded persistence of a very bright child with Asperger's, which the boy, Oskar, appears to have. Like any good quest, it involves traveling far and wide (all over the five boroughs of New York), meeting many characters, and learning from them. But Oskar also has overwhelming fears not unusual in kids on the spectrum; he's terrified of subways and bridges. The sight of him shaking his tambourine to quiet his fears as marches in what he calls "heavy boots" across the Manhattan Bridge will be moving to anyone who knows kids who are afflicted with intense anxiety.
But the thing in "Extremely Loud" that moved me even more than Oskar's nervous pluck was the portrayal of his parents -- their patient and equally ingenious efforts to understand Oskar's complexities and nurture his talents.
Oskar is not an easy child. In a scene that will be familiar to many parents -- whether your kids are on or off the spectrum -- we see Oskar's father, played by a Tom Hanks, trying unsuccessfully to coax Oskar onto the swings at a playground in Central Park by invoking his own boyhood pleasure in it. In that moment he's every parent who's felt the frustration of having a child who just can't do an ordinary thing all the other kids do, or just doesn't share his parents talents or passions.
But Hanks, and the filmmaker, play the scene marvelously: only a tug at the swing as he takes the boy home betrays the father's disappointment. And we are grateful, because Oskar is nearly as afraid of disappointing his father as he is of getting on that swing.
Hanks, who seems wonderfully tuned in to Oskar's strengths and wonderfully non-judgmental about his weaknesses, devises elaborate scavenger hunts to help his son navigate the city and get better at speaking to strangers. For his mother, getting on Oskar's wavelength seems tougher, and her parallel journey is a good deal of what the movie becomes about. She surprises Oskar, and herself, when she says, "You thought only your father could think like you."
But before we see them coming together there's an exchange that's both painful and wonderful in its honesty. In anger and frustration and loneliness, Oskar blurts out, "I wish it was you." That is, that she had been in the World Trade Center that day and not his father. She says simply, "Me, too." Later, feeling badly about hurting her feelings, he says, "I don't mean that." She says, in an awesomely comforting voice, giving him permission to have his feelings, "Yes, you do. "
A lot of critics disliked this film, called Oskar "obnoxious" or other words to that effect, and complained that they were being manipulated into "feeling sorry" for him. I think this is a misreading of the film: we're not being asked to feel sorry for Oskar or his mother and father. We're seeing the world, and the process of figuring out how to live after terrible loss, through their eyes. What I saw was love and courage and great creativity in the face of adversity -- something to admire, not something to feel sorry about.
Harold S. Koplewicz, M.D., is a leading child and adolescent psychiatrist and the president of the Child Mind Institute. For more about parenting kids with special needs and the courage of children, go to childmind.org, which also offers a wealth of information on childhood psychiatric and learning disorders.