Max Winslow and the House of Secrets (2019) – Film Review
Director: Sean Olson
Cast: Tanner Buchanan, Chad Michael Murray, Marina Sirtis
by Rosie Hargreaves
This family film blends sci-fi with some realistic, drama-based elements, including anxieties rooted in parental pressure, friendship, and social media, and follows the tech savvy and misunderstood teenager Maxine Winslow, who is entered into an escape room-style contest to win a tech mastermind’s mansion.
It was a strange watch. The film initially piqued my interest due to the many comparisons already made between it and The Breakfast Club and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (the original, not the freaky 2005 affair). Both films are splendid: one captured many children’s hearts and the other resonates just as much now with teens as it did in 1985. The parallels between Max Winslow and the House of Secrets and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory are thinly veiled at the start of the film. Max is the archetypal Charlie Bucket type: single parent family, her mother is riddled with debt and, overall, Max comes across as a saintly figure, devoid of any badness at all.
It’s a shame that Max wasn’t fleshed out enough and made even a fraction more realistic (and for what it’s worth, I don’t think this lack of characterisation stemmed from any of the young casts’ acting abilities, more so poor dialogue). There was a missed opportunity to create a strong and interesting female protagonist with a passion for technology and future advancements. Alas, by the end of the film she is merely someone’s girlfriend, which made me feel uncomfortable at best.
“Loses its key audience”
The rest of the teens are gradually picked apart emotionally by Haven – a judgemental and frightening version of the Amazon Alexa who seems to be more in charge of the house than the elusive billionaire played here by early noughties heart throb, Chad Michael Murray. Each room in the house has a “game” attached to it, connected loosely to the vices of each teen. After some hardcore inner reflection, disappointingly, most of these rooms can be escaped by (who’d have thunk it) opening the door ninety percent of the time.
For all its flaws there is no denying that Max Winslow and the House of Secrets is suitable for children and teens – family friendly, as advertised, though there are a few spooky scenes that might not be apt for our youngest viewers. Adults will be able to sit through it rather unscathed, too. But despite its accessibility, the narrative, dialogue and characterisation fail to deliver and hold even the most patient viewer’s attention.
Momentarily, the film gets more interesting when it attempts to highlight some of the issues teenagers might face. This could provide a brilliant teaching tool for parents watching with younger children and could make a more disaffected teen’s ears prick up. Yet every opportunity is wasted, let down by either clunky dialogue or an odd, soulless soundtrack that is completely misplaced. In trying to accommodate everyone, the film loses its key audience, which judging by the age and interests of the protagonists, should be younger teens interested in the sci-fi genre.
The sci-fi elements are interwoven well in the film, especially towards the start of the movie in which coding and STEM are held in high regard and our tech multi billionaire – Atticus Virtue – is seen as an idol and entrepreneur. Despite the more clear-cut nod to the genre at the start, the film really loses its footing later. The breath activated lock and the robot knight (a sort of butler?) are the two main offenders when it comes to shoddy and pointless, special effects to show technological advancement.
Where the film works best is when it relaxes and gives in to a bit of silliness here and there. At these moments, the characters seem a little closer and there appears to be a bit more heart. There’s our shy lead, the jock, the gamer, the internet troll and the influencer. Although teen cliché and stereotype has come time and time before, where Max Winslow fails is the lack of interaction between them all. I can’t remember a single conversation between individual pairings that brings them closer together. There’s no heart to heart, tears streaming, “I Could Disappear Forever, and It Wouldn’t Make Any Difference” moment to be had, just a couple of dull interactions which eventually add up to a film that isn’t necessarily bad, just completely forgettable.