The world as we know it is filled with billionaires. So it is no surprise they splash their cash on ridiculous extravagances from time to time. Just look at the list of projects Elon Musk has attempted over the last decade. In “Max Winslow and the House of Secrets” we see what would happen if one such philanthropist decided to offer a group of high schoolers a chance to own his tech-filled mansion. With our lives so driven by our connection to technology, “Max Winslow” offers a chance to break down the barriers that technology has forced up around us.
A school-wide broadcast by mysterious entrepreneur Atticus Virtue (Chad Michael Murray) offers a group of students a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Invited to Virtue’s mansion, Max Winslow (Sydne Mikelle) and four classmates compete for the chance to own it. Inside, the technology he has created is simply astounding. From robotic knights to virtual worlds, the house is mind-blowing. Soon things take an unexpected turn as the competition begins and the technology proves to be more dangerous. The house, run by the AI system HAVEN (voiced by Marina Sirtis) challenges the youngsters. Soon they begin to face their deepest anxieties and fears. Whether that is about being truthful to their parents, their vanity on Instagram or their own trolling behavior. Think Willy Wonka in the tech business instead of candy.
Max is our titular hero, leading the group of teenagers, and Mikelle has a great screen presence that truly stands out among the cast. When teamed up with her crush Connor (Tanner Buchanan) the two are a strong partnership, providing levity. The group is a mix of the cliched and stereotyped teen characters you have seen for decades. From the online bully to the obsessed gamer and a follower-driven Instagrammer, all types of online presences are displayed. Director Sean Olsen and writer Jeff Wild dissect these stereotypes with passion and care. They explore these traditional character molds and break them down to see the insecurities that plague the group. It’s refreshing to see an honest take on teenagers and their relationships to technology.
While the lead performances are strong from both Mikelle and Murray as Max and Atticus Virtue respectively, the supporting performances are not up to that same standard. Hiring Jade Chynoweth for the role of an Instagram influencer may have seemed a perfect fit thanks to her two million followers. Despite her real-life experience on the platform, her arc of becoming less in touch with the online world is the film’s weakest. In comparison, the voice work from Sirtis as HAVEN is easily one of the highlights. Charming, menacing and with some great comedy, her performance will be one of the elements most remembered.
“Max Winslow and the House of Secrets” attempts to cross genres within its brisk runtime, but suffers as such. Whether it is going for comedy, romantic subplots or some light thrills, it struggles for a real identity. With a more clear focus on a single genre rather than the constant chop and changing, it could be more coherent. It is also worth noting that for a film of this ambition the effects are a little rough. This is especially evident when Benny (Jason Genao), an avid gamer, is tasked with fighting demons in a virtual world. With such a demanding science fiction concept, sub-par effects can be a killing blow. However, in this case, the story is strong enough to see it through despite its visual flaws.
“Max Winslow” has already screened around multiple film festivals including the Canadian International Film Festival and is looking to set itself up as a modern success. It is possible for a film with a strong statement to bring family-friendly entertainment to the table. The film gives us a chance to re-evaluate our relationships with technology through the lives and experiences of these high schoolers. The real and virtual worlds are so intertwined nowadays, having a film honestly look at this connection is refreshing.