Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close to Home

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close to Home

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture and apparently this is causing a great deal of controversy.  Many of the reviews out there are negative and I am absolutely shocked that this is the case.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is being labeled as a movie about 9/11, but after watching it, I’m not sure it’s about 9/11 at all. Maybe that’s because one of my sons has Asperger’s Syndrome and I can relate to the lives, emotions, and struggles of the story’s characters.  I think the movie was more about experiencing the traumatic loss of a relationship which was almost more important than life itself, and figuring out how to move forward without that person’s presence.

I honestly had no idea that Asperger’s Syndrome was a part of the storyline when I entered the theater, and how incredibly close the movie would come to exposing my emotions. I have to wonder if the average individual, without a family member falling somewhere on the autism spectrum, would come away from the film with the same impact that it had on me and my family. After reading the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, it is obvious that many did not experience the beauty the film had to offer.

This is bound to happen if we go into a theater with specific expectations and preconceived ideas. We’ve all done it and we’ve all been disappointed.  Most of the negative critics seemed to be anticipating another movie about that fateful day, but the movie is not presented that way, in fact, the film’s website says, “This is not a story about 9/11. It’s a story about every day after.”

Could this story have been told without 9/11 altogether?  Yes, I think it could. Everyone suffers loss if they live long enough.  So, why 9/11?  I tend to think it was used as a backdrop because it is an event in which we can all relate to some degree.  It is a day that we will all remember, no matter who we are, where we were, or to what degree we were personally affected. We are drawn to the subject matter. We simply can’t help it.

Before I move away from 9/11 altogether, I will say that the movie did give me a view into the world of a family who literally experienced a personal loss on September 11, 2001, and I think it was important for me to see.  Up to this point, my own definition of 9/11 has really been about the way it affected me, myself, and I. Not living anywhere near New York City, I didn’t know anyone personally who died that day as a result of the terrorist attacks.

Along with everyone else, as an American, I have experienced terrorism as a constant in my mind, and I have been inconvenienced with tightened security at the airport. By 2004, however, September 11, 2001, became the catalyst for what would forever change the life of my family in a way that will always be painful and permanent.  That fateful day eventually prompted my oldest son to enlist in the Marine Corps the first day he was eligible.  Because of that decision, and his military service, he is now a disabled veteran.  The past few years have left me little room to think long and hard about the families who literally lost someone in the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, or one of the ill fated flights because my world has been turned upside down and there simply wasn’t time or energy for me to go there with my thoughts and actions.

I’m grateful for the reality check that I received from Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I needed to be reminded, and see the world from the perspective of those who suffered personal loss that day.

So why is this film about so much more than September 11, 2001?  If you go see it with an open mind, you will know the answer to that question.  

It is the small details that make this movie great.  I believe that Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a movie that can be seen over and over, opening new windows and doors each time it is viewed.  I’ve already seen it twice and I gained far more from it the second time than I did the first.  Should I watch it again, I will be ready to look for more tiny pieces of the fabric that make the movie all that is intended to be.

As unrealistic as some parts of the story might be, I didn’t find them any more unrealistic than any other movie out there, and in fact, I believe the film producers and the actors must have gone to great lengths to understand the world of a child living with autism.  For those of us who live life with, and deeply love, a child with Asperger’s, there was plenty of reality in the film.

The movie had me shedding tears of laughter as well as tears of heartache.  There were so many scenes familiar to my life.  Oskar Schell, played by Thomas Horn, saw the world through a kaleidoscope of numbers. I can relate to that as my own son has a similar view of the world.  It’s no wonder that he is a math and physics major in college and finds that the more difficult a class, the more joy it brings him as he solves the challenges with which he is presented. Not being a numbers person myself, I am always fascinated by the fact that my son can relate just about everything on the planet to some sort of number.

Oskar says it like it is.  If you know an Aspie, you know that what runs through the mind comes out of the mouth. How many times have I wished I could hide when my own child told someone the bold truth, usually something which needed to be said, but something the average individual would never dare say. I found Oskar’s frankness refreshing, familiar, and heartwarming.

Individuals with Asperger’s struggle to communicate.  It was endearing to see that Thomas Schell (Tom Hanks) created a business card for his son, understanding the incredible struggle it was for Oskar to initiate conversations.  Even more endearing to me were the elaborate quests designed to reach Oskar in his world and bring him into the world in which the rest of us reside, teaching him to take courageous steps to get to the answers he needed.

Rather than focus on the far fetched idea that a 9 year old child would walk the streets of New York alone, consider the fears that Oskar had to conquer and the tools he carried in his backpack to make the mission happen.  The book Oskar carried, certainly not needed for this quest, defined the time spent with his father, as well as their relationship. Fig Newtons were included because we all need our comfort foods. Each time I heard Oskar shake his tambourine, it brought a smile to my face and I felt a tug on my heart.  I get it.  I’ve watched my Aspie struggle for years to step out of his comfort zone.

I found the scene where Oskar tries to escape his emotional turmoil, hiding under his bed to be very profound, not because Oskar was under his bed, but because this behavior was so well understood by his family.  The first place his grandmother looks for him is under his bed.  She doesn’t ask him to come out, but instead, lies down on the floor as she has obviously done many times in the past.  She stays there for hours as if this is just a normal part of her day. Oskar’s mother comes into the house and heads directly for his room, knowing that underneath the bed is where she will find her son on what is obviously “the worst day” ever.

Living life with an autistic child requires a different level of understanding. It requires a willingness to leave what the rest of us consider “normal” and accept that place which while strange, is the comfort zone needed to forge the path of communication for our child.

And what about the mother, Linda Schell, played by Sandra Bullock, who appears to be absent for most of the movie? There was a nagging in the back of my mind as I could hardly see letting any child run throughout the streets of New York alone, but with the limited time a movie has to fill us in on every detail, my questions were laid to rest as the movie came to a close. Not only did I find out that Linda Schell was right there with Oskar the entire time, I found out that she had gone ahead of him, prepared the way, and then, with all the faith she could muster, allowed Oskar to seek the answers he needed to move forward in life.  She found the key to a future relationship with Oskar that was very much needed, especially now that he must move forward without his father.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close opened a miraculous window to the world of my Aspie.  It prompted a lengthy discussion between me and my son that was undoubtably one of the most precious conversations we have ever had.

“I’ve never been so emotionally affected by a movie,” he told me.   This may sound strange to most, as people often think that autistic individuals don’t have emotions, but nothing could be further from the truth. Those with autism spectrum disorders have problems processing emotional information, and often an inability to express their emotions, but that doesn’t mean the emotions aren’t there.

Our discussion took many twists and turns, and I learned many things about my son as he shared thoughts and feelings with me that he had never spoken out loud to anyone.   Had we not viewed the film, he would never have been prompted to open up and let me into his world in such a personal way.

My son shared with me that while life had been a challenge, and he had endured many negative trials along the way, he also realized that having Asperger’s Syndrome was actually a gift.  He has come to this revelation over the past year, with the help of the incredible support given to him through the Kelly Autism Program at Western Kentucky University.  He realizes that he could never be so good at what he loves without being a little bit different from the rest of us.  He also realizes that being a little bit different is really just in the eye of the beholder and that what makes him unique is likely one of his biggest blessings.

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