Writer: Jeff Wild
Director: Sean Olson
This year’s half term movie is a spin on the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory premise reimagined for the internet age that pits a group of ‘bad’ children against each other to win a glittering prize. A High School teen movie with a dash of the Hunger Games aimed at young adults, Max Winslow and the House of Secrets is a fun if cheesy story of teamwork and beating your demons.
Tech entrepreneur Atticus Virtue interrupts lessons at his former school with a video message for its pupils – by the end of the day five of them will be chosen to visit his mansion to compete in a number of games in order to win the house and a chance to work with him. Geeky coder Maxine Winslow, known as Max, is shocked to find herself among the contestants but she enters the house along with the jock, the joker, the gamer and the Instagram princess. How many of them will survive the night?
Director Sean Olson and writer Jeff Wild have created a well-paced story that uses a series of challenges that the children must face together and individually to construct their film. Very little time is wasted on the preamble or character exposition, and within 15-minutes of the start the fun and games begin. It’s a wise choice because with virtual reality, mechanised medieval knights, puzzles and locked room mysteries, the movie is able to maintain a decent pace across its 1 hour and 45-minute running time.
Although its troubled teen frame is improbably stretched to include a group of pretty decent people just trapped in their own heads, it gives Wild and Olson the opportunity to incorporate some classic sci fi and horror movie tropes that, arriving shortly before Halloween, give some light scares as the group are teased and troubled by a computer with a life of its own, the Haven system.
Where Max Winslow and the House of Secrets is least effective is in recycling the rather tired clichés of the high school genre and, while its computer-hacker heroine is female, these are all rather two-dimensional characters who never quite deserve or get the kind of punishment Dahl meted out to Willy Wonka’s grotesque charges. That everyone learns to be a better person, even if they were essentially fine in the first place, is one of the more saccharine messages that slightly undermines its simultaneous ‘be who you are’ theme.
Sydne Mikelle as Max makes a decent fist of being our representative Charlie, carrying the movie as the underdog destined to make it all the way. Mikelle makes Max smart and likeable, solving riddles quickly while developing an attraction to Tanner Buchanan’s lacrosse-playing Connor who just wants to major in music. Completing the young cast are Jade Chynoweth as social media Queen Sophia, Jason Genao as gamer Benny and Emery Kelly as the ‘troll’ Aiden.
With Marina Sirtis offering a creepy vocal performance as computer Haven there are enough thrills and scares to motor this escape-room drama while Olson adds some variation with computer-game effects and spooky old house feel as the children are separated. A team of friends is now established so the door is certainly open for more Max Winslow adventures, and this family-friendly opener will make good half-term viewing.
Release Date on 23 October 2020