“Max” is a good, old-fashioned story of a boy and a dog who mend each other’s broken hearts. It is heartwarming without getting treacly, and frank without getting too disturbing. And it has adventure, romance, loss, and something to say about what we should ask of ourselves and each other. It is one of the best live action family films of the year.
Justin Wincott (a terrific Josh Wiggins) is an unhappy teenager who lives in Texas with his parents (Thomas Haden Church as Ray and Lauren Graham as Pamela). His older brother Kyle (Robbie Amell of “The DUFF”) is a Marine in Afghanistan, working with a dog named Max, who protects the troops and sniffs out danger, locating hidden bombs and caches of weapons. Justin won’t even stop playing a video game when Kyle is Skyping with his parents. Kyle gently teases him for not coming to the computer screen to say hello. “I’m just over here dealing with a minor insurgency. He’s trying to save the whole universe.”
But Kyle is killed, and Max is severely traumatized. The Wincotts are devastated, though proud of Kyle’s service for his country. Ray, himself a wounded veteran, is stoic and firm in his beliefs about patriotism and manhood. Justin is angry, bitter, and hurt. He is not interested in helping a damaged dog. He does not know yet that the best way for him to heal his spirit is to find a way to help someone else. He and Max share a great loss and need to learn how to process what they have experienced.
Kyle’s best friend, who served with him, was released early and goes to work for Ray. And Justin has a best friend, Chuy (Dejon LaQuake), who has a spirited, brave cousin who loves dogs named Carmen (Mia Xitlali). With Carmen’s help, Justin helps Max feel at home. But as a Marine tells him, “These dogs were born to work. Take away that sense of purpose and they’re lost.”
Justin needed a sense of purpose, too. He finds it when it turns out their town has some bad guys with guns and rottweilers. Justin and his friends find out that Max’s sense of purpose means he will do anything to keep them safe. Yakin keeps a lot of moving parts moving smoothly. Justin’s relationship with his dad, with Max, with Carmen, and with the bad guys all come together as a part of his growing understanding of his own sense of purpose.
Parents should know that this film includes wartime violence, a sad death, dog fights, adults and children in peril, weapons dealers, brief strong language, and a teen kiss.
Family discussion: Why was it hard for Justin and his father to get along? Why did Justin’s father wait to tell him the story of his wound?
If you like this, try: the “Lassie” movies and “Remember the Titans”
Yes, it is basically “Die Hard” and “Under Siege” in the mountains of Finland, if Bruce Willis was a kid on a rite-of-passage solo hunting trip. And instead of executive hostages in a big office building, the kid has to save the President of the United States, who has been ejected from Air Force One in some sort of attack we will learn more about later on.
So, the storyline is far from fresh. But the location is, and it is excitingly filmed and engagingly performed.
Samuel L. Jackson plays President William Allen Moore, en route to a G8-style meeting when his Secret Service officer, Morris (Ray Stevenson) sends him out in a parachute pod to protect him from what appears to be an assassination or kidnap attempt, led by known terrorist-type bad guy and obvious mercenary sociopath Hazar (Mehmet Kurtulus). Meanwhile, back in the Situation Room back home, the vice president (Victor Garber), the head of the CIA (Felicity Huffman), and a national security expert (James Broadbent) are trying to locate and rescue the President.
But you probably suspect that some of the people we are supposed to be trusting will turn out not to be trustworthy, and you are right.
Meanwhile, Oskari (the nicely underplaying Onni Tommila) in on his Finnish walkabout. He is on his own in the wilderness with a bow and arrow, expected to bring home an impressive kill. He is under a lot of pressure, because his father is a legendary hunter. But the bow is nearly as big as he is and the hint his father gave him about where the best spot is to find his prey. But his father’s idea of help was not what Oskari thought. And the big game he found was a guy in a suit who is pretty big stuff in Washington but not so powerful away from home.
Writer/director (and Tommila’s uncle) Jalmari Helander knows Hollywood movies and matches the pacing and tone of the best of the genre. There is nothing new in the twists of the plot, but the relationship between the canny President and the unruffled boy, each with different skills, and the action sequences that are unrealistic but fun keep things entertaining.
Parents should know that this film incudes extended action-style violence, characters injured and killed, themes of treason and assassination, some strong language, and potty humor.
Family discussion: How did Oskari feel when he saw what his father left for him? What was Oskari’s biggest challenge?
If you like this, try: “Masterminds” with Patrick Stewart
“Infinitely Polar Bear” is the term a young girl uses in this film for bipolar disorder, the mental illness that her father struggled with as he cared for his daughters. It indicates that this sensitive, touching story reflects the perspective of the children who lived with him.
Writer/director Maya Forbes based the film on her family’s story, when she and her sister lived with their father near their school in Boston in the 1970’s so that their mother could attend an MBA program in New York.
Because their father could not work, and because his wealthy family would not give them enough money to live on, the only way their mother could support them was to get a business degree, but she wanted the girls to stay in their home and school. And so, Cam (Mark Ruffalo), who had been living alone, moves into the family apartment, and Maggie (Zoe Saldana) lives in New York during the week and comes home on weekends. And the girls, Amelia (Imogene Wolodarsky, Forbes’ daughter) and Faith (Ashley Aufderheide) spend their weeks with a man who loves them very much but who fills the apartment with chaos and clutter, chain-smokes, drinks, and, worst of all, is SO embarrassing.
There is something both perceptive in presenting embarrassment as their primary reaction. Children naturally see the world in terms of how it affects them, and school-age children are first discovering the way that they are judged by their peers and are therefore excruciatingly sensitive to it, and can become near-frantic about blending in. But it is reassuring as well. The girls know that both of their parents love them very much.
Forbes presents the story with enormous insight and compassion for each member of the family. The young actresses who play the two girls are wonderfully natural. Saldana gives a performance of endless grace. And Ruffalo manages to make Cam a complete and complex character, unlike the typical movie portrayal of mental illness as a bundle of cute quirks or sociopathic fury. There is nothing as carelessly lofty as the Boston upper class. While Cam knows their era is ending and would not want it to continue, it persists in his speech and carriage and in occasional flashes of a sense of entitlement. He impulsively decides to take his daughters on a tour of his family’s mansion, even though it is now owned by someone else, who reasonably thinks that no one, even former owners, should be allowed to enter without an invitation. He visits his grandmother, who still controls the family money, and has dinner with his parents (Keir Dullea and Beth Dixon, nailing the effete accents, snobbery, and helplessness). He tinkers with a dozen projects and stays up all night creating a mermaid costume. And he self-medicates with chain-smoking and constant sips of beer. Ruffalo plays Cam not as a mentally ill man but as a man who has a mental illness, along with a lot of other qualities, including a deep love for his wife and children.
Parents should know that this film has very strong language, themes of mental illness, smoking, drinking, drugs, and family dysfunction.
Family discussion: Do you agree with the decision made by the parents about leaving the girls with Cam? How have ideas about mental illness changed since the era of this film? How does the writer/director, who based the story on her own life, feel about her parents?
If you like this, try: “Donnie Darko,” “A Beautiful Mind” and “Silver Linings Playbook”