Directed by Stephen Daldry (Paramount, 2011)
Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel about a 9-year-old boy whose father is killed on 9/11 angered and touched a lot of readers. Director Stephen Daldry’s film has set off its own minor firestorm among critics and viewers, a reminder perhaps that the wounds left by that day may still be too raw for cinematic exploration.
We meet Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), an excitable, obsessive Manhattan third-grader, at his father’s funeral, where the boy rages at the insanity of burying an empty casket to mark the parent vaporized in the collapse of the second tower. To a child who possibly has Asperger’s the world is already a strange and unsettling place, and the loss of the dad who has been Oskar’s best friend and guide is terrifying indeed.
In this dark fairy tale of loss and redemption, Oskar fixes on the notion that a key found in his father’s closet will lead him to someone with a message from his dad. So the 9-year-old sets out on an odyssey through New York’s five boroughs, encountering a broad communion of mostly saints who open their doors, locks, and hearts to this itinerant waif.
But grief, it turns out, is not a mystery unlocked by a key. It is a pain that must be voiced and shared to be endured and transformed. The strangers who encircle and support Oskar draw the boy out of himself, much as his father used to do, and bring him to a place where he is shaken by loss and grief, but not destroyed.
Hemingway once wrote that “the world breaks everyone, and afterward, many are strong in the broken places.” But the strength of our healed wounds is a grace that comes from the communities that nurture and support us with their own broken humanity. In this tale of one child’s loss amidst a sea of devastation Oskar is not healed by his quest, but by the legion of broken hearts that beat as one with his.
This article appeared in the April 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 77, No. 4, page 42)