A young boy seeks to resolve a mystery as he grieves for his father, killed in the 9/11 attacks. The Warner Brothers release was nominated for two Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
By CBSNews.com senior editor David Morgan
Grief is one of the most difficult emotions to dramatize in film because, while it is a universal experience, it is extremely particular. No two people grieve the loss of a loved one the same way.
It is also extremely difficult to empathize with someone whose loss we can barely fathom, whose lost loved one we do not know.
This is even more complicated when considering those who lost family and friends in the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, whose particular personal pain was mixed with the societal shock, anger and fear prompted by monumental acts of violence that appeared inexplicable.
The central character and narrator of "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close," Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), is an 11-year-old whose father Thomas (played by Tom Hanks) died in the collapse of the World Trade Center. In Oskar's difficulty coming to terms with his loss, he tries to stave off the feelings of disconnect from his dead parent.
OSKAR: "If the sun were to explode you wouldn't even know about it for eight minutes because that's how long it takes for light to travel to us. For eight minutes the world would still be bright and it would still feel warm. It was a year since my dad died and I could feel my eight minutes with him were running out."
Oskar's intelligence and curiosity come hand in hand with his suspected Asperger Syndrome, a form of autism that produces feelings of social anxiety - a difficulty in talking with people, reading social cues, or recognizing personal boundaries.
His father had engaged Oskar in various "reconnaissance expeditions" - games that involved searches for the hidden meanings of clues - which would both test the boy's mind and force him to emotionally connect with others.
In flashback scenes we experience Thomas Schell as an extremely patient and loving father - unsurprising given they are filtered through Oskar's memories of him. Yet Thomas is also prone to similar fits of disconnect: When Oskar shows old home movies, his father cannot be bothered to watch, his eyes glued to a computer monitor.
The film's narrative begins after the events of "the worst day," and continually circles back to that touchstone as Oskar tries to remain attached to the father who can never come home, whose funeral features an empty coffin.
But instead of drawing closer to his mother (Sandra Bullock), Oskar finds himself further removed from her - each dealing with grief in their own way.
His behavior at times appears cruelly selfish, as when he hides from his mother the telephone answering machine containing the final messages left by Thomas before the World Trade Center towers collapsed.
When Oskar explores his father's closet, he discovers a key in an envelope labeled "Black." Unable to find the lock that matches, he begins investigating what he believes is a clue left for him by Thomas.
The quest to solve the mystery, Oskar believes, will extend his "eight minutes" with his father.
Convinced "Black" is a name, he begins systematically visiting every single person named Black listed in New York City's telephone directories. Oskar devises codes and intricate grid patterns to map out his latest quest, and calculates it would take him three years of Saturdays to reach all of the 472 Blacks listed.
Setting out on his five-borough trek, Oskar is immediately thrust against his own fears and discomforts: Crowds, noises, airplanes, elevators, mass transit, stares, smells.
For an 11-year-old, it is a tremendous challenge. For Oskar it would appear insurmountable.
What Oskar soon discovers, when he begins telling strangers his story of loss and his quest for answers, is that people are generally open and giving to him - to them, he represents all 9/11 families, and his arrival offers them an opportunity to grieve their collective sense of loss and need for connection.
Oskar's Asperger's appears to be no hindrance for others, so great is their need to find answers, to have their own stories heard.
Oskar's grandmother (Zoe Caldwell), a doting and enthusiastic partner in many of his quests, rents a room in her apartment to a lodger (Max Von Sydow, left), who is silent - communicating solely through the written word.
It is unknown if the Renter's silence is the result of trauma or some social disorder, but he and Oskar bond over the boy's story.
The Renter agrees to join Oskar on his quest to meet New York City's Blacks, though on his terms - riding buses or subways.
The death of an innocent on 9/11 means the central character faces a major hurdle: Trying to explain the inexplicable, to understand something that has no meaning. The film's dramatic power comes from the protagonist's attempt to fill an emotional vacuum - a motivation that leads him to an entirely different destination.
Based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer and adapted by Oscar-winning screenwriter Eric Roth ("Forrest Gump"), "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" is a very insular film, with its almost incessant voiceover narration, and cinematography by Chris Menges that accentuates Oskar's point of view - a picture of New York as both wondrous and dangerous, claustrophobic and comforting.
Using the September 11 terror attacks as the focal point also puts the audience in an uncomfortable situation: Viewing the horrors of that day as a dramatic device for a boy's self-discovery involves the audience's own personal associations with that "worst day." This makes our bond with Oskar much different than if his father had died in, say, a traffic accident, even if his grieving measured the same loss.
In showing the burning towers and images of falling bodies, the filmmakers took great risks in alienating its audience because, as with grief, no two viewers would respond to such images the same way.
British director Stephen Daldry (center) received Oscar nominations for his first three feature films: "Billy Elliot," "The Hours," and "The Reader" - the latter two also nominated for Best Picture. He also directed both Nicole Kidman and Kate Winslet's Academy Award-winning performances.
Prior to "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close," the only acting experience Thomas Horn had was an elementary school production - playing a grasshopper in "James and the Giant Peach."
Horn was discovered as a winning 13-year-old "Kids Jeopardy!" contestant. A California native, Horn speaks four languages (including Croatian and Mandarin) and his hobbies include skiing, karate, tennis, cross-country, and piano.
Tom Hanks and Thomas Horn arrive at the 2012 Palm Springs International Film Festival Awards Gala at Palm Springs Convention Center on January 7, 2012 in Palm Springs, Calif.
Of his young costar, Tom Hanks told CBSNews.com's Ken Lombardi, "He's an extraordinary guy. I don't know if I can have an opinion of him as an actor because he's not. But he has this kind of presence in a movie that is kind of like a non-actor presence ... We tried to capture a moment of behavior between father and son ... And you can't really fake that, you know?"
Tom Hanks (Thomas Schell) won back-to-back Oscars for Best Actor for "Philadelphia" and "Forrest Gump." He was also nominated for Best Actor for "Big," "Saving Private Ryan" and "Cast Away."
His other film credits include "Splash," "A League of Their Own," "Sleepless in Seattle," "Apollo 13," "You've Got Mail," "The Terminal," "The Da Vinci Code," "Charlie Wilson's War" and "Larry Crowne." He was also the voice of Woody in the "Toy Story" animated films.
Tom Hanks talks to Thomas Horn on the set of "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," in New York's Central Park, March 22, 2011.
Sandra Bullock (Linda Schell) previously won an Academy Award, Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe Awards for her performance in "The Blind Side." Her other credits include "Speed," "The Net," "Miss Congeniality," "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood," "Crash" and "The Proposal."
Veteran Swedish actor Max Von Sydow first gained international attention in the work of director Ingmar Bergman, including "The Seventh Seal," "The Virgin Spring" and "Through a Glass Darkly." His other film credits include "The Greatest Story Ever Told," "The Exorcist," "3 Days of the Condor," "Hannah and Her Sisters," "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," and "Shutter Island." He was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for "Pelle the Conqueror."
For his performance in "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" in which he says not a word, Von Sydow received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
Max von Sydow told CBS News' Barry Petersen that there was never a moment during his performance when he wanted to talk: "No, no, no - I didn't want to talk. There was an early version of the script where they wanted me to say something at the end. But I was immediately against that, I don't think it should be. It shouldn't have been done, and it wasn't. I'm very pleased."
From left: Tom Hanks, Thomas Horn, Sandra Bullock, director Stephen Daldry, Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright attend the premiere of "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" at the Ziegfeld Theater on Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011, in New York.
Thomas Horn, winner of the Best Young Actor/Actress Award for "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," poses in the press room during the 17th Annual Critics' Choice Movie Awards held at The Hollywood Palladium on January 12, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.