Director: Colin Trevorrow
Starring: Naomi Watts, Jaeden Lieberher, Jacon Tremblay, Sarah Silverman, Lee Pace, Madddie Ziegler, Dean Norris, Bobby Moynihan
Running Time: 105 min.
★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
**The Following Review Contains Major Plot Spoilers. Read At Your Own Risk**
We frequently complain movies are too predictable. That they don't take enough risks. Be careful what you wish for? In Colin Trevorrow's The Book of Henry, what starts as a Spielbergian 80's throwback centered around a precocious youngster set in a Norman Rockwell-esque town, jarringly transforms into an assassination thriller. The premise is so preposterous and insane, it's tone shifting so dramatically, that there's a real temptation to praise it on sheer guts alone. For just daring to give us something completely different and unexpected, especially for family entertainment. Then common sense kicks in and you realize a film should generally know what it is, despite Trevorrow doing as good a job as possible at attempting to manage a tonal tidal wave and the performances being generally excellent.
This is hard to detest, if only for the audacity and spectacle of the whole thing. Where it goes awfully wrong is in taking serious, heavy issues like child abuse and murder and incorporating them into a wholesome family feature, wanting to both have its cake and eat it too. Obviously, it can't, and results in the narrative flying off the rails at the midway point, creating a viewing experience that's equal parts fascinating and horrifying. It's truly a wreck you can't look away from, but also an eye-opening wake-up call that most bad movies would be a a lot more fun if they failed as ambitiously as this. For that at least, Trevorrow deserves a ton of credit, salvaging what he can from what's clearly a misguided mess, while still falling short of the complete disaster critics have labeled it as.
11-year-old boy genius Henry Carpenter (Jaeden Lieberher) and his younger brother, Peter (Jacob Tremblay) are being raised by their single mother, Susan (Naomi Watts), who waitresses while working on her yet-unpublished children's books. Frequently doubting her own ability to parent, Henry handles all the bills and finances and uses his abnormal intelligence to successfully invest in the stock market, earning them a considerable degree of monetary comfort. In a somewhat disturbing role reversal, it's Susan who swears, plays video games and gets drunk with best friend and co-worker Sheila (Sarah Silverman), as Henry serves as the family's protector and provider.
When not saving Peter from school bullies and building complicated Rube Goldberg-like machines with a steampunk slant in their tree house, Henry starts to see disturbing signs that his next door neighbor and class crush, Christina (Maddie Ziegler) is being abused by her stepfather, and local police commissioner, Glenn Sickleman (Dean Norris). An "upstanding member of the community," the allegations will be tough to prove, but Henry comes up with a dangerous, last resort plan that could save Christina if successful. But it's Susan who must decide whether to follow through with it, pitting the trust she has in her genius son and the welfare of a young girl against the dire risks of its potential failure.
Taking place in a universe where kids create and innovate, it seems to be fall all year-round and people look after each another, Spielberg's classic "Amblin" entertainment logo wouldn't look the slightest bit out of place preceding the film. While certain elements seem odd or out of place early on for a family crowd-pleaser (most notably every scene involving Sarah Silverman's boozy, chest tattooed waitress), you're still prepared to follow this wherever it goes since the script establishes itself early on as as having this kind of retro quality that's both sweetly endearing and inoffensively weird. The kids are quirky, but likable, and there's this fleeting sense that the filmmakers get it and your intelligence won't be insulted. And then the craziness begins.
Read no further if you don't want the rest of the film spoiled....
Almost completely out of nowhere, and rather abruptly, Henry dies from an incurable brain tumor, leaving behind a book of detailed instructions for his mother. Instructions for how to kill Mr. Sickelman. Filled with enough post-death planning to make Jigsaw jealous, this book is a step-by-step murder guide featuring sketches and illustrations from an 11 year-old on how to take out the corrupt, abusive police commissioner. And if this isn't enough, he also recorded an audio tape to walk her through it.
The problem with this entire scenario (besides the glaringly obvious) is that in keeping with the family friendly vibe thus far, Sickleman hasn't really been established as being guilty, much less that bad of a guy. And certainly not enough of one to warrant this. Maybe to these characters, but not to us, since Gregg Hurwitz's script is too afraid to show us the evidence and repercussions of said abuse. And while I'm certainly not advocating some kind of graphic depiction of child abuse for consistency's sake, we needed more than scenes of a sullen, depressed Christina in class and close-up shots of a shocked Henry looking into their window at night.
Making matters worse, Dean Norris has only about two scenes prior to all this, one of which involves his character innocuously asking Susan if she could keep her leaves off his lawn. This combined with the fact that Norris is riding a lifelong wave of audience goodwill from Breaking Bad presents an uphill battle for the film, creating an illusion that this child prodigy's dying wish was for his mom to kill an innocent man. Of course, this isn't true, and as much as I respect the film for not flaunting the naturally intimidating Norris as an over-the-top, mustache-twirling villain, when something as serious as child abuse is introduced as a story device, it needs to be treated with gravity and significance. There's no hedging your bets or it risks coming off extremely tasteless at best and offensive at worst. In other words, they had to definitively show this evil guy has it coming, family friendly or not.
Tonally, there are even stranger creative decisions, like an uncomfortably creepy scene involving Sarah Silverman's alcoholic waitress and a dying Henry that will have you questioning who the town's real child abuser is. Lee Pace appears as neurosurgeon Dr. David Daniels and while he's completely believable in the smallish role, his character takes this active interest in Susan and the family that comes off as weird and unprofessional because the script's so fuzzy about his intentions in order to preserve its wholesome aura. Had the script simply acknowledged all these eccentricities bubbling under the surface instead of pretending to be what it isn't, it could have added depth to the story instead of a series of head-scratching moments.
There are two scenes that are unequivocally great, even if the latter could have some feeling guilty for how suspenseful they find it. The first involves Dr. Daniels explaining the fatal diagnosis to Henry in terms a child could understand, not realizing layman's terms aren't necessary for an 11-year-old as extraordinarily gifted as this. That Henry's already a step or two ahead in figuring out his fate makes their conversation even tougher to watch than it already is. Then there's the pivotal sequence during which a school talent show is intercut with Susan's assassination attempt on Mr. Sickleman.
The idea that this murder mission is supposed to be some kind of inspirational assertion of Susan's parental independence is absurd, but boy does Watts ever sell it. Most actresses wouldn't have been able to pull off nearly half the insanity she does in the third act with a straight face, but she's downright committed all the way through, drumming up a surprising amount of tension for an admittedly ridiculous situation. You're almost mad at yourself for being on the edge of your seat because it's so silly, but somehow this whole section works almost in spite of itself. And given how scared the movie is to go near the child abuse issue, Trevorrow was at least smart enough to rely on Maddie Ziegler's dancing skills and body language to convey the shame and sadness surrounding Christina's situation that was glaringly absent from the screenplay.
Undoubtedly drawing comparisons to the somewhat similar part he played in 2016's Midnight Special, Jaeden Lieberher takes what could have been some of the more cliched elements of the familiar "gifted child" trope and imbues Henry with a warmth and humor that often overcomes the occasionally frustrating story. Jacob Tremblay isn't given the kind of dramatic showcase here he received a couple of years ago with Room, but brings that same precociousness and intelligence to little brother Peter, who adoringly follows his genius sibling's lead in everything.
You have to wonder if this would have gotten as much hate from critics if it wasn't made by the filmmaker selected to direct Star Wars: Episode IX. Or at least he WAS. While it may make for exciting headlines speculating that this film's failure directly caused Trevorrow's departure or removal from that project, the real story is likely a lot more complicated and less sensational than that. It's a misfire for sure, but one that could have actually been a whole lot worse in the hands of a less talented director.
Dusting off a frequently rejected script that's been sitting on the shelf since 1998 probably wasn't anyone's idea of a good start, and after seeing it, it becomes even easier to understand why. The Book of Henry deserves credit for legitimately attempting something we've haven't seen before, while also serving as a harsh reminder that certain established movie rules exist for a reason. They work, even if the most fascinating way to fail is by attempting to break them.