'The Book of Henry'
For better or worse, ‘The Book of Henry’ is definitely a project that Colin Trevorrow was able to make without studio interference. Produced between the box office success of ‘Jurassic World’ and his upcoming chapter in the latest ‘Star Wars’ trilogy, the director’s sudden clout allowed him to sneak a weird script through the studio system. It bucks formulas and is unlike anything else released by Hollywood this week. Whether or not that’s a good thing is up for debate.
Jaeden Lieberher (‘St. Vincent’, ‘Midnight Special’) plays child genius Henry, an 11-year-old in charge of his family’s finances, groceries, and anything else that his loving mother (Naomi Watts) and adorable little brother (Jacob Tremblay, ‘Room’) need. He’s also in love with the girl next door (Maddie Ziegler) and is convinced that she’s being abused by her stepfather (Dean Norris), even though he can’t get anyone to investigate since the alleged abuser is the local chief of police. Things get further complicated when Henry develops a brain tumor, and even though this is technically a spoiler, it’s worth noting that he doesn’t survive. He leaves behind a notebook explaining why and how his mother needs to murder the neighbor to save his gal as a final post-mortem wish. Since Henry was a genius and all, Mom decides to at least give it a shot.
Whew! How’s that for a summer studio movie? It’s a weird one to be sure – one that starts in “precocious children are magic” territory before slipping into a tumor-of-the-week tragic melodrama and finally segueing into some sort of Hitchcockian kiddie murder picture. To say there’s never been anything quite like ‘The Book of Henry’ before is a reasonable assessment. There have been movies like portions of it, but nothing like the entire weird and wild venture. The script frequently diverts into bad taste, trivializing sexual abuse and murder for the sake of family fairy tale fantasy. The movie ultimately means well and tries to handle this material with the most possible tact and good taste. Of course, it isn’t entirely possible to jump through all those hoops, but it’s interesting to watch Trevorrow try. Call it hubris or call it admirable ambition, but the guy managed to use his clout to get something completely off the wall cranked out with a studio backing him.
Predictably, the tone is odd. The movie has a slight sense of fantasy. No one is pretending that this is hard realism, but the fairy tale qualities only make the darker subject matter that much more unsettling and inappropriate (often flipping from one to the other within the same scene). At the center, Naomi Watts does an impressive job of grounding the material as best she can. After all, Watts has an ability to make David Lynch’s dialogue and characterization feel naturalistic in a manner that few actors can come close to capturing. She was the wisest choice for the role and handles it as well as anyone could. Lieberher and Tremblay continue to prove that they’re preternaturally talented young performers, even in roles as bizarrely exaggerated as this, while Norris does his best in a cartoon villain role that mostly requires dead-eyed stares of calm evil. The supporting cast oddly boasts comedians like Sarah Silverman and Bobby Moynihan in parts that perhaps were comedic relief at one point, but now feel like strange distractions even though they’re fine actors.
If nothing else, ‘The Book of Henry’ is a well shot and constructed film, executed on a scale that this sort of thing is rarely afforded. It’s fascinating and flawed in almost equal measure, but unpredictable throughout. It’s impossible to see where Gregg Hurwitz’ script will go since it combines so many incongruous elements. At times, that can be enthralling. At other times, it can be infuriating. Ultimately, there is something admirable about the fact that Colin Trevorrow somehow got a movie this plain weird released in the middle of blockbuster season. That’s insane.
‘The Book of Henry’ likely won’t give any sceptics new hope for Trevorrow’s upcoming dance in ‘Star Wars’ county, but it does at least prove that he’s willing to take risks as a filmmaker even if he ends up flat on his face. Hopefully that fearlessness (or perhaps recklessness) will carry over to his next oddball family odyssey set in a galaxy far, far away.