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Originally published January 19, 2012 at 3:00 PM | Page modified January 20, 2012 at 7:57 AM

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Movie review

"Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close': hard to watch, but worth it

"Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,' about 9/11 through the eyes of a child who lost his father, is an emotional subject worth watching, with gentle performances from stars Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock, and child actor Thomas Horn.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3 stars

'Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,' with Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Thomas Horn, Max von Sydow, Viola Davis, John Goodman, Jeffrey Wright, Zoe Caldwell. Directed by Stephen Daldry, from a screenplay by Eric Roth, based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer. 129 minutes. Rated R for emotional thematic material, some disturbing images and language. Several theaters.

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MOVIE REVIEW 3 stars

Sometimes, there are movies that you don't want to watch, and for me, "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" was one of them. Though it's been more than a decade since the events of 9/11, movies about that day remain few and far between ("United 93," "World Trade Center") — it's hard to imagine that a movie could capture the emotions we felt, or that we'd want to revisit them. And a movie about a child's reaction to that day — "Extremely Loud" is based on Jonathan Safran Foer's novel about an 11-year-old boy who loses his father on 9/11 — seems even more fraught with peril. How do you avoid preciousness and falseness when grown-ups tell a story from the child's point of view? How do you not trivialize that day by simplifying it to a child's understanding?

Director Stephen Daldry hasn't shied away from emotional subject material in the past ("Billy Elliot," "The Hours," "The Reader") — and he turns out to be the right filmmaker for the job here. "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," adapted by Eric Roth, at times teeters on the tightrope it's walking: some of its characters seem overidealized; its musical score at times pushes our emotional buttons a bit too obviously; its central character's quest feels like something a writer constructed. But it's a genuinely moving and often lovely piece of work — beautifully acted and, ultimately, earning its tears.

At the story's center is Oskar (Thomas Horn, in his film debut), who before 9/11 lived a contented, comfortable life in Manhattan with his kind, loving parents, Thomas (Tom Hanks) and Linda (Sandra Bullock). On that day — "the worst day," as Oskar calls it — everything changed: His father, a jeweler, went to a meeting in the World Trade Center and never returned. Grieving and lost, with his mother seemingly distant, Oskar finds something that belonged to his father: a key, in an envelope marked "Black." Remembering the puzzles his father would set out for them to solve, Oskar vows to visit everyone named Black in New York's boroughs, hoping to find someone who can shed light on the mystery and share one last connection with his adored father. "You never know where a key's going to fit," says a cheery locksmith.

And off goes this odd, prickly little boy on an emotional adventure through a picture-book New York — a bundle of fears and anxieties (hauntingly, he's afraid of the sight of groups of people looking up), yet utterly resolute. Daldry, who showed in "Billy Elliot" that he's a wonderful director of children, beautifully guides Horn: He's a cute boy who doesn't seem to know it, and makes Oskar into a believably bright, often bratty kid who has his own way of looking at the world. Hanks and Bullock, in much smaller roles, give soft, gentle performances, letting us see them through the eyes of a child who loves them. Max von Sydow, Viola Davis, Jeffrey Wright and Zoe Caldwell bring depth to brief appearances.

There are moments, make no mistake, when "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" is utterly devastating to watch, as its drama intertwines with our own memories and emotions. But without soft-pedaling what happened, the film is kind to its audience, letting us leave with just a bit of hope that this child — and we — will become whole again.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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