Overview: A precocious boy hatches a plot to rescue his neighbor from her abusive stepfather. Focus Features; 2017; Rated PG-13; 105 minutes.
A Parade of Mistakes: A lot of things have to go wrong in order for a movie like The Book of Henry to exist. This is a film that deals with loss, childhood sexual abuse, illness, single parenthood, and gifted children. Take a deep breath, that’s a lot. When you look at that list of heavy subjects, you might think that the movie would match that serious tone. Well, you could not be any more wrong. This is a movie that desperately tries to have it all: Heartwarming family drama, dark abuse story, the problem with people who abuse their power, and quirky comedy. And it leaves us with almost nothing.
No One Is Safe: The Book of Henry is a movie of two halves, which switches on a major twist. The first half focuses on Henry (Jaeden Lieberher), his mother (Naomi Watts), and his younger brother, Peter (Jacob Tremblay). The knowing comedy between Henry and his hot mess of a mom, Susan, feels like it could work with a better script. Neither actor is really to blame, but they are saddled with dialogue, written by Gregg Hurwitz, so weighed down by sentimentality that they cannot help but have their performances crushed by it. Tremblay, on the other hand, is given little to do besides being purposefully adorable and crying on cue. The movie also features a particularly painful performance from Sarah Silverman as Susan’s friend and co-worker. Her put upon voice and mannerisms ring hollow and false. This might work as a late night skit, but not here. The arc of her relationship with Henry is groan inducing in its obvious schmaltz, and was basically pointless. It is a moment that the writer felt needed to happen due to circumstance rather than a character moment that is earned. And really, that is The Book of Henry encapsulated, supposed emotional moments that inspire nothing but audience apathy.
The Best Laid Plans: The second half focuses on the difficult decision regarding Henry’s neighbor. The girl next door is likely being abused by her stepfather, played by a sleepwalking Dean Norris. The tone switch inherent in moving from quirky family comedy to dark childhood sexual abuse needs a steady hand behind the camera. Director Colin Trevorrow is absolutely not up to the task. The abuse portion of the film seems to be written by an author who has not done their research. Although this is mostly Henry’s story, there could have been room for Christina (Maggie Ziegler) to play an actual character. Instead she is relegated to a sullen caricature, long hair shrouding bruises and tears. Actually, she becomes a bit of a damsel who needs to be saved by Henry. The plot contrivances employed for not involving the authorities defy every ounce of logic in the situation. Any person with passing knowledge of abuse cases may find themselves sighing and rolling their eyes at the struggles with Child Protective Services. Henry’s painstaking research on how to handle the situation also strains credulity at every turn. No person in the history of the world has ever accomplished tasks so easily and quickly. And this would be fine, if it was consistent. Henry achieves his many goals more through dumb luck than his obvious precociousness. After all, the movie tells us and tells us for over an hour that Henry is a genius. The most impressive thing is just how uninteresting all of these big moments come across. Given how outlandish the plot points are, we should care at some level, or at least react. Instead, there is a collective shrug as the next plot point is executed. The plan from our child expert is completely laughable, but really, we knew that after seeing a shot of Watts taking aim with a sniper rifle in the trailer.
Henry’s Future: Speaking of laughable, despite everything I have said, The Book of Henry is destined for greatness, or at least infamy. There are numerous lines of dialogue, designed to pull on our heartstrings after doing none of the necessary character work, that elicited guffaws out of the audience. This film may be the focus of ironic enjoyment in midnight showings for years to come. The characters never connect, the plot makes close to zero sense, and many of the performances are uninspired. The Book of Henry is just begging to be the next movie you love because it’s just inept on so many levels.
Overall:. The Book of Henry wants to have it all and delivers on none of its promises. A saccharine sweet script cannot be overcome by a gifted cast and the tonal shifts employed by its director are not only jarring, but comes dangerously close to offensive given its heavy themes. Ironic enjoyment is really the most you can hope for in a viewing.
Featured Image: Focus Features