Tech wizard and reclusive entrepreneur Atticus Virtue (Chad Michael Murray) invites five troubled teenagers to spend the evening in his futuristic mansion to compete in a series of games. The prize? Why whoever has the most points at the end of play will win the house of course. All the kids go to the same school Atticus attended and this is his way of giving back to the local community whilst finding a protégée to mentor.
As the night progresses, events take a dark turn when the home’s AI, Haven, takes control of not just the games, but the fate of the kids as well. Trapped within the walls of the technological fortress and forced to face their personal demons, allegiances are forged and relationships tested as only one will rise to claim victory. As dramatic as this sounds, it’s worth remembering this is a PG certificate. There are a few moments sensitive children might wince at, but this is very much a family film and features some important moral messages that even adults might need reminding of.
All the stereotypical characters from a movie featuring an American High school are present and correct; socially inept loner (Sydne Mikelle), gaming geek (Jason Genao), bullying loudmouth (Emery Kelly), handsome yet misunderstood jock (Tanner Buchanan), and an Instagram enthusiast (Jade Chynoweth). Let’s not forget the token love story between two of the five thrown into the mix as well.
The game cast, giving it their all, manage to paint over the cracks in an occasionally weak script and a few niggly plot-holes aside, the film is a lot of fun. A terrific showcase for the young ensemble, all have their moments to shine, none more so than Sydne Mikelle as the eponymous hero. Deftly portraying a mix of awkward comedy and teen angst, she brings a steely determination to Max and is instantly likeable. Chynoweth’s social media wannabe is also a highlight, but Murray’s enigmatic inventor isn’t seen nearly enough in a role that is disappointingly relegated to the background.
Director Sean Olson keeps the narrative moving along swiftly, quickly introducing the main players reminiscent of the golden ticket winners in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. There’s a quirky charm throughout and some impressive effects considering the limited budget. More could’ve been made of the games with a stronger emphasis on cryptic puzzles and lateral thinking rather than some of the disappointingly straightforward questions and answers featured and it works best when the gang are together. As the evening spirals out of control, they separate and some of their individual stories are stronger than others with all having an air of predictability about them.
Max Winslow and the House of Secrets will certainly keep the kids entertained and has enough going for it to please parents too. Inoffensive and energetic, this is a very promising beginning to what could be an exciting new franchise.
Dir: Sean Olson
Scr: Jeff Wild
Cast: Sydne Mikelle, Tanner Buchanan, Jade Chynoweth, Emery Kelly, Jason Genao and Chad Michael Murray
Prd: Sean Olson, Johnny Remo, Mino Tran, Danfeng Xu, Jasper Bingfeng Yu, George Yaming Zhang, Sanbao Zhang
DOP: Isaac Alongi
Music: Jason Brandt
Run time: 98 minutes
Max Winslow and the House of Secrets opens its doors in UK cinemas from October 23rd