Family Movie Review: Max (PG)

Max ChesapeakeFamilyMovieReviewKernel Rating (out of 5): whole popcorn kernalwhole popcorn kernalwhole popcorn kernalhalf popcorn kernal

MPAA Rating: PG        Length: 111 minutes

Age Appropriate For: 10+. The film is rated PG, but definitely has some violent content: a scene set in Afghanistan where a group of soldiers comes under enemy fire and one person dies; another scene where a person dies in an explosion and another dies from a fall; various scenes with fighting dogs, where two different dogs end up injured; a dog tries to attack a person; and some chase scenes, gunfire, language, jokes about race, and a kiss between two teenagers.

Young boys especially will love 'Max,' about a young teen who unexpectedly bonds with a military service dog. The feel-good film is wholehearted in its support of second chances.

By Roxana Hadadi

"Max" is dedicated to the memory of the 26 service dogs and 25 handlers who have lost their lives in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003, and the film is clear about its support of United States troops and the important part they play in the defense of our country. But those motivations are secondary to the film's inspirational messages about second chances: that everyone deserves one, and that anyone can be a hero. For young viewers, those are nice messages to have on the big screen.

A solid choice for family viewing, "Max" tells the story of a Belgian Malinois service dog who returns from a tour in Afghanistan after his handler, 23-year-old Texan Kyle Wincott (Robbie Amell, of "The DUFF"), dies in an ambush by the Taliban. Kyle's parents, former Marine Ray (Thomas Haden Church, of "Heaven is for Real") and mother Pamela (Lauren Graham, of "It's Kind of a Funny Story"), are devastated by their eldest son's death, but younger brother Justin (Josh Wiggins) is almost unfazed. He's in his own world of video games and talking back to his father, and he resents Kyle for leaving him to be alone with his parents. In contrast to his parents, Justin's grief never really seems to materialize.

But then the military contacts them and lets them know that Max, who the family grew to know over video-chatting sessions with Kyle, will be put down because he has PTSD. Unable to bear that, the family decides to bring Max home, especially when they see how positively he responds to Justin's presence. Suddenly Max is Justin's responsibility, and with time, things seem to be improving – until Kyle's best friend Tyler (Luke Kleintank), who served with him in Afghanistan and was discharged after Kyle's death, comes to visit one day. Max tries to attack Tyler, putting everyone on edge but raising questions for Justin: What has Tyler done to get Max on his bad side? And what else could Tyler be capable of?

The rest of the plot twists and turns through Justin's first crush, dealings with dirty cops, and threats provided by the Mexican cartel, but it's never too complicated or overly complex. The film effectively keeps the bond between Max and Justin front and center, using it as a way to reinforce themes about trust: How can Justin train Max if they don't respect each other? Why do Justin and his father treat each other so harshly – what would it take to get them to like each other again?

And, in an interesting turn, questions about the potential hypocrisy of the military-industrial complex are raised, too, which might be worth discussing with teenage viewers. Is it fair to send soldiers to fight our battles overseas, but to still keep weapons companies in business that might hurt those same soldiers with their products? You wouldn't expect that kind of nuance from "Max," but it's there.

Fifteen or so minutes could have been chopped from "Max," and the result would have been a tighter film. But the film takes time to build the relationship between Max and Kyle (the former's behavior at the latter's funeral will break your heart), and to build the relationship between Max and Justin, and to build the relationship between Justin and his parents and his friends, and there's a methodical wholeness to the film that is well done. You'll leave "Max" thinking that you love the dog, and knowing that you could trust him with your life. It's a good feeling.

Interested in a previously released film? Read our reviews of films already showing in your local theater.

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