Thanks to a healthy backlog in my Netflix queue, I finally saw the film, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” this weekend.
I have heard others say that it is a hard film to watch. The main character, Oskar Schell, is a boy living in New York whose father, played by Tom Hanks, dies in one of the Twin Towers on 9/11. So the inherent sadness of a story in which a child mourns for his father makes the movie painful. Yet that very pain is what makes the film so powerful.
Even before 9/11, Oskar sees the world in a unique way. He does so in part because he shows indicators of Asberger’s Syndrome, a kind of high functioning autism. Yet through this syndrome, we behold the depths of the father’s love for his son in scenes that take place before the tragic loss of life.
Oskar’s dad understands his son’s gifts and his limitations. To build on the former and transcend the latter, the father devises a special expedition – a kind of quest – for young Oskar.
The father tells his son about the “lost sixth borough of New York.” Oskar’s challenge is to find it or at least evidence of its existence. The father presents a series of clues that require Oskar to do what is uncomfortable for the son: to talk to others and to seek out items in unfamiliar places.
When Oskar complains that searching for clues is hard work, his dad replies, “If it was easy, it wouldn’t be worth finding.” With his father’s encouragement and enthusiasm, Oskar makes great progress on this quest. But then his dad dies.
Initially, Oskar is devastated. Then, one year after the tragedy, Oskar ventures into his father’s closet and discovers two things.
The first is a newspaper clipping he has seen before, one where his father has circled the words, “…notstop looking” a kind of credo for Oskar despite the missing space between “not” and “stop.” The second is an old key in a small envelope hidden in a blue vase.
The search for the lock that fits the key becomes a final quest from the father to the son. And what happens on that quest is what makes the movie so brilliant. You’ll have to watch it yourself to find that out.
I’m usually wary of attempts to read into a story more than was intended. Yet here, I cannot resist making comparisons of Oskar’s journey to our own. We may not have a form of autism, but we all have our issues. And we too, have a Father, a heavenly one, who knows our strengths and our weaknesses better than we ourselves do. He has given each of us a quest and has left clues behind for us to find. And with each discovery, we come closer to understanding both Him and ourselves better.
But the beauty of this story, and ours as well, is that we do not travel alone. Oskar can only complete his quest through the kindness and assistance of others. Some of the most poignant scenes in the film are when we witness the impact that Oskar has on the many, many people he meets. In their response to him, they gain much more than they have given.
The sweet irony of his journey is this: It is not in spite of, but because of his brokenness and his “disability” that he is able to complete his quest. He is welcomed by strangers who are disarmed by his blunt innocence and who empathize through their own post-911 loss Oskar’s need for closure.
We too travel more completely in our own incompleteness. The very things we shy away from – vulnerability, dependability, incompetence – are what make us most human, and most inviting to others. If we travel in such a manner, however uncomfortable that may initially feel, we find, as Oskar does, that our fears dissipate and our connections increase.
And like Oskar, we may reach the end of our quest only to find that what we have discovered is different and yet more powerful and fulfilling than what we thought we were looking for.
But we only find it, as did Oskar, if we are careful to not stop looking.
P.S. As my son pointed out after experiencing the movie, God is not only like Oskar’s father in the film, but like his mother as well. I’ll say no more to avoid giving anything away. But watch the movie and see just how stunning that insight is.