Max Winslow And The House Of Secrets

*1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Max Winslow and the House of Secrets
"Sydne Mikelle is good in the role and does her best to keep her character believable until the closing scenes, when that would be beyond the ability of most seasoned thesps."

Five teenagers. A giant house. Hidden puzzles everywhere. Whoever gets the most points will win the building itself. It's all fun and games until what seem like jokes about automatic lock-ins give way to choking clouds of smoke, electric shocks and extreme psychological manipulation.

One might, in part, blame the parents. They allow their kids to bully them into going to visit a wealthy stranger with no adult supervision when everything about the set-up suggests grooming. Tech billionaire Atticus Virtue (Chad Michael Murray) is one of the creepiest 'child-friendly' figures to appear on our screens since Johnny Depp's take on Willy Wonka - a low rent Elon Musk figure with twee facial hair who spends his time telling starry eyed teenagers how 'special' they are. He contacts our young protagonists by text message after letting their whole school know about the contest, feeding their egos from the start, but with the whole film framed from their perspective, we're encouraged to believe that there's nothing in the least bit seedy about this.

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One of the few pleasing things about this whole enterprise is that lead protagonist Max is a girl - something that's still far too rare in the kids' adventure genre. Sydne Mikelle is good in the role and does her best to keep her character believable until the closing scenes, when that would be beyond the ability of most seasoned thesps. She is by far the film's best asset. Max is a slightly withdrawn but bright girl trying to navigate the awkwardness of high school society and her feelings for sport-but-sensitive boy Connor (Tanner Buchanan), another of the chosen few. They're joined by gamer Benny (Jason Genao), social media star Sophia (Jade Chynoweth) and bully Aiden (Emery Kelly). Star Trek's Marina Sirtis provides the voice of the house's controlling computer, Haven - an in-joke which makes the film's conclusion even more unpleasant.

Without exception, these teenagers represent an adult's idea of what young people are like - and an adult hopelessly out of touch with the priorities of their generation, at that. The worst of the consequent humiliations are focused on Sophia, who is mocked throughout for her perceived vanity - always uncomfortable coming from a male writer in a world where women's prospects really can be significantly affected by their looks - and who is treated as if her constant selfies and fan updates were all about a desire for attention rather than, as is the case for many such girls, a means of making a living. Yes, she's irritating, but hardly a monster, and the film's notion that she needs to be 'saved' is misogyny writ large.

There's a deep streak of ableism running through the film, whose moral message seems to be that the more young people learn to conform, the better - unless they conform to the wrong things, like Connor, who surrenders too easily to his parents' ambitions but who will apparently be just fine once he surrenders to Virtue's instead. Max is pretty much told that self-fulfilment depends on her accepting a relationship with a boy, and the treatment of Aiden is simply clueless, sending a dangerous message to young viewers at risk from domestic violence.

If this review seems to be focusing too much on the messaging, that's because there really isn't much else that's worthy of consideration. The sets, which might have offered enormous potential, are simply dull. The puzzles aren't very satisfying for viewers, offering them little to do. The direction is at best bland and the special effects would have looked crude in the Nineties. The soundtrack is likely to be divisive. If you're into sentimental guitar ballads of a certain type then it might do something for you; if not, you're liable to find it excruciating.

This is a film aimed at family audiences but it comes across like a middle aged man's self-indulgent saviour fantasy. Its central concept is flawed to the point of being nonsensical and it will leave many children feeling miserable. Don't try this at home, kids.

Reviewed on: 20 Oct 2020
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Max Winslow And The House Of Secrets packshot
Five teenagers compete to win a mansion owned by an eccentric billionaire. The night takes a dark turn when they become trapped and are forced to face off against a super computer who has gone rogue.

Director: Sean Olson

Writer: Jeff Wild

Starring: Tanner Buchanan, Chad Michael Murray, Marina Sirtis, Jade Chynoweth, Tyler Christopher, Jason Genao

Year: 2019

Runtime: 98 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US

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