An actor can take over a movie so thoroughly, with a personality of such magnetism, that we forget the skepticism and questions the script leaves in its wake. That happens in "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," where Thomas Horn delivers the finest leading performance I saw in a movie made in 2011.
He was 12 years old when he did it. He had never stood in front of a camera on a professional production, except for a kids' version of "Jeopardy!" Yet he gets so deeply into the whirling mind of Oskar Schell, dominating every scene he's in - which is almost every scene, period - that he lifts the movie out of the realm of "Forrest Gump"-like emotional manipulation.
Eric Roth, who adapted the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, also wrote "Gump." The stories start from the same place: A sweet, sensitive young man being raised by a single mom realizes he can't function as "normal" people do and tries to find a way to use his talents productively. (By coincidence - or is it? - Tom Hanks appears in both, here playing Oskar's dad.)
Oskar, however, knew and loved his dad. Thomas Schell led his son on expeditions around Manhattan, inventing a vanished "sixth borough" and sending the boy on scavenger hunts. (When told to find something from every decade in Manhattan, Oskar returns with a single rock, which has indeed been there for hundreds of years.)
Thomas dies in the World Trade Center attacks of 2001, and the disconsolate boy draws away from his mother (Sandra Bullock). Oskar finds a blue vase in his dad's closet; it contains an envelope labeled "Black" and an unidentified key. He resolves to visit everyone named Black in the city until he learns what the key will open, hoping to find one last gift left by his Dad.
The movie often seems self-consciously arty. The spelling of Oskar's first name links him to the boy in Gunter Grass' "The Tin Drum," who refused to grow up because of the horrors of adult life; his last name says he's a "shell" waiting to be filled after his father was snatched away.
The incomparable Max von Sydow shows up as a mysterious tenant living with Oskar's grandmother (Zoe Caldwell). But in a story like this one, he has to be a mute who chose to stop speaking decades ago, for reasons he won't relate. He accompanies Oskar on his rounds among the Blacks, scribbling on a pad and lifting the palms with "no" and "yes" written on them to answer questions. (Why doesn't he just nod or shake his head?)
But among the improbabilities of the search, despite the tortuous explanations, the movie rarely seems false. That's partly because of the cast - not just the aforementioned actors but Jeffrey Wright, Viola Davis and John Goodman - and sensitive direction by Stephen Daldry, who made two other films about alienated adolescents ("Billy Elliot," "The Reader").
Whenever the film totters toward sentimentality, young Horn snatches it back. The title refers not only to the explosions of that September day but the way the world appears to Oskar: He tells people that his test for Asperger's syndrome was inconclusive, but the movie makes it seem likely he has that condition.
He's troubled by the speed, noise and chaos of almost every element of life. (And, in a larger sense, aren't many of us?) Oskar can't go on swings, cross bridges, enter the dark chasm of steps leading to the subway. Horn makes him physically fragile but emotionally resilient, determined to gain the last bit of knowledge that will cement his father in memory. Your heart may not go out to the movie itself, but he'll capture it.