Written by Jeff Wild
Directed by Sean Olson
Throughout 2020, being indoors has offered us the opportunity to explore the places we call home. To familiarise each nook and cranny, and know the inside of the door frames from the brickwork outside.
For Max Winslow however, life is a little duller, and she finds authentic beauty in lines of code rather than lines of literature. Though, one particular house may offer the opportunity to drastically alter everything in her life. A hacking and coding marvel, Maxine has tremendous potential but finds difficulty in forging relationships after her father leaves a lasting effect when he abandons the family. When Atticus Virtue, the world-changing genius offers the opportunity for one of five lucky kids to win his mansion, the inner workings and much much more, Max sees the opportunity to escape and support her family.
Now, this does ring true of noted classic Willy Wonka, but Max Winslow & The House of Secrets holds more in common with the eighties & nighties sci-fi classics which blended a darker drama with family-friendly creativity and light-hearted adventure. As the five (un)lucky kids work there way around Virtue’s mansion, they come to realise that the welcoming computer programme Haven is a touch less homely as they first thought. As puzzle evolve and stakes raise, the film offers viewers an opportunity to flex their brains as well as their concerns for the characters.
And in a world where young adults and kids weigh their self-worth more so than ever before, Haven’s torture is not only poignantly destructive but transcends the film from being a light-weight family film into a profoundly multi-faceted adventure. And even though the film does confine itself to a few key tropes, Wild’s script has the nerve to push just enough to open up the dimensions of a few characters beyond expectations.
Subverting those past concerns of kids films obsessions with chocolates, cartoons and material greed, Wild’s script gradually builds on the glaring character flaws which make their presence known early. Almost to the film’s initial downfall, characters are, if anything, aggravating, but there’s intention behind Sean Olson’s direction. Wild breaks down these blemishes, heightening them as to impact Haven’s twisted protocol to ‘heal’. Whether this is from our tainted self-worth thanks to social media, bullish trolling attitudes behind a keyboard or an addiction – Max Winslow and the House of Secrets readily tackles contemporary issues.
For Sydne Mikelle, taking on the lead is daunting enough, but the drive Mikelle brings to the closing moments of Max’s character as she confronts her father, berating her sense of karmic retribution has an edge. Understated, Mikelle carries a lot of the film’s humour and relatability, with much of the other cast being relatable, if exaggerated until the latter halves revelations. Her onscreen chemistry with Tanner Buchanan is there, though the characters feel mildly forced into being a pair. Welcomed too is her energised back and forth with Chad Michael Murray as the infamously brilliant Atticus Valiant – creator of Haven.
From Douglas Rain’s HAL – 9000 to Stephen Moore’s Marvin the Paranoid Android – there’s something to be said for voice performances which broaden the role of an otherwise unseen, or non-living character. By and large Haven, the AI programme running the manor house is in essence, a main character and the principal antagonist. Marina Sirtis revels in such a disgustingly enjoyable role while maintaining a distinctive computer-presence, it’s hard not to both admire and fear Haven as a less-than-distant real-life concern.
Cleverly, Isaac Alongi’s cinematography for the film moves from open to confined to keep up with the film’s pacing and tension, which can alter at any moment. Only drips of the momentum slow, usually at the result of an over-held shot, weak CGI or pause for a joke to pan out. What helps bridge and transition is the film’s decidedly effective score, Jason Brandt borrowing from a generation of sci-fi classics and video game creations to offer the film nostalgia kindling, but up-to-date musical genres.
Max Winslow and the House of Secrets is a reason to venture back into the cinema. A humble piece of science-fiction thriller, which dashes itself with enough references and tributes to zhuzh up its own rather splendid being. A must-watch for all this Autumn, Olson’s film is a Wonka-esque thriller for the age of coding and influencers.