Max Winslow and the House of Secrets

Movie review by
Tara McNamara, Common Sense Media
Max Winslow and the House of Secrets Movie Poster Image
Engaging but imperfect mystery may feel too familiar.
  • NR
  • 2020
  • 98 minutes

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We think this movie stands out for:

A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Educational Value

Intended to entertain rather than educate, but viewers may pick up some information about smart house technology.

Positive Messages

Themes of forgiveness, virtuousness, and personal growth. The film questionably suggests that "bad kids" (a term that's used often) can be shown the error of their ways and find personal growth thanks to technology.

Positive Role Models & Representations

The kids have their flaws, but main character Max is astute, observant, and, as a high-tech wizard/hacker, goes against female stereotypes. She also demonstrates courage and humility. Non-stereotypical ethnic representations. On the downside, teens are labeled as "bad kids" for thin reasons that include being grumpy (called a "troll"), being obsessed with their social media following, gaming, pranking a neighbor, and accepting an athletic scholarship despite a preference for music (called a "liar").

Violence & Scariness

Menacing and perilous moments that may be nerve-wracking. Bullying mistreatment is used to build understanding and compassion.

Sexy Stuff

Romance develops between two teens.

Language

Mean language and name-calling/labeling -- "stupid," "ugly," weak," "liar," "troll," etc. -- but no profanity.

Consumerism

A few brands seem to be gently highlighted: an Oldsmobile SUV is shown to be aspirational, and a billionaire treats his guests to Chick-fil-A (logo not shown).

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

A high school student tries to grab a beer from a refrigerator but is stopped. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Max Winslow and the House of Secrets is a Willy Wonka-meets-Elon Musk escape room-style mystery about teens who must outsmart a "smart" house. The house gets more malevolent as the story proceeds, and some menacing/perilous moments imply that something really bad is about to happen -- so much so that at times it feels like a horror movie for kids. But there's no graphic violence and (spoiler alert?) everything and everyone turns out not just OK, but better for the experience. A little romance develops between two teens, there's some bullying, and one teen tries to take a beer from the refrigerator, but otherwise, the content here is very mild. What's iffier is how often the term "bad kids" is used by adults to describe the teens, along with labels like "liar" and "troll." The teens aren't perfect, but their issues -- being grumpy, pranking a neighbor, being obsessed with social media, etc. -- are hardly scandalous. Plus, most of the issues originate with their parents, including pressure to achieve and abandonment. Still, the kids do demonstrate courage and humility and ultimately achieve personal growth -- but, the movie says, that's thanks to technology, another aspect that may leave viewers scratching their heads.

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What's the story?

In MAX WINSLOW AND THE HOUSE OF SECRETS, billionaire tech genius/hometown hero Atticus Virtue (Chad Michael Murray) launches a Willy Wonka-like competition to win a tricked-out "smart" mansion run by an operating system called HAVEN. All of the students at Bentonville High hope to be selected. Maxine "Max" Winslow (Sydne Mikelle) doesn't expect she'll be picked, since nothing ever goes her way. But when she's one of five teens selected to participate in the challenge, it starts to feel like she and her competitors weren't picked at random, especially as HAVEN gets more malevolent the longer the kids are in the house.

Is it any good?

This curiosity of a smart-house-escape-room mystery will keep tweens on the edge of their seats, even if it's a little amateurish. Despite substantial evidence in the entertainment world that kids enjoy mysteries, few of them exist for this age group. Which is too bad, since kids like to figure things out. Still, even though Max Winslow and the House of Secrets allows kids' minds to work while they're sitting back, that doesn't mean everything quite adds up. Virtue may be a genius, but some of his challenges are lawsuits waiting to happen. Also, the whole set-up -- including why these particular five kids were selected -- is pretty shaky. (If these are the "bad kids" of Bentonville High, can we all send our kids to school there?) And the way some of the games work feels less like advanced technology and more like a mind manipulation/Vanilla Sky situation. 

Writer Jeff Wild's script seems like it must be an adaptation of a middle-grade novel. It's not, but it might feel that way because the plot has a lot in common with Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. And that's not the only "homage" in play: The house is reminiscent of Clue, and the characters are like modern takes on The Breakfast Club. Of course, it's less likely that today's tweens will know those films, so hopefully it will all feel new to them. Some parents may be distracted by the similarities to their old favorites, but kids will stay engaged and involved all the way to the end.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about what Max Winslow and the House of Secrets is saying about technology. What are tech's pros and cons for kids? In what ways can social media and video games help and hurt kids?

  • What is the film's message about bullying? Is it a learned behavior? What can you do if you encounter a bully?

  • How does Max demonstrate courage and humility? Conner is critiqued for lacking integrity -- do you agree?

  • One of the main characters has the last name "Virtue." What does "virtue" mean to you? What do you consider a virtue? How is this idea used in the film?

Movie details

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