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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 setup -- 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 ...
What is the film's message about bullying? Is it a learned behavior? What can you do if you encounter a bully?
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?
- In theaters: May 29, 2020
- On DVD or streaming: May 29, 2020
- Cast: Chad Michael Murray, Sydne Mikelle, Tanner Buchanan
- Director: Sean Olson
- Studio: Tricoast Worldwide
- Genre: Family and Kids
- Topics: Magic and Fantasy, High School
- Character strengths: Courage, Humility
- Run time: 98 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG
- MPAA explanation: scary situations and peril, language and thematic content
- Last updated: March 3, 2021
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