The Book of Henry
Naomi Watts, Jaeden Lieberher, Jacob Tremblay
US theatrical: 16 Jun 2017
UK theatrical: 23 Jun 2017
Watching the new family thriller-drama The Book of Henry is a decidedly frustrating experience. After an emotionally churning start, filled with gentle and observant reflections on the life of a precocious child, director Colin Trevorrow’s film takes an inexplicable detour into lackluster suspense and daft assassination plots. It’s difficult to recall a film soaring so high, only to crash beneath the weight of its own narrative and thematic blunders.
In a year that has celebrated the feminist triumph of DC’s Wonder Woman, it’s especially insulting to endure the helpless female protagonist in The Book of Henry. Susan Carpenter (Naomi Watts) is a misguided mother who confuses friendship with their child for actual parental guidance. She spends her days screwing up her waitressing job at a rundown diner, only to return home for an evening of video games and drunken commiserating with her waitress buddy, Sheila (Sarah Silverman). It’s no exaggeration to say that Susan is completely reliant upon men for her survival. In this case, that ‘man’ is her 12-year-old son, Henry (Jaeden Lieberher).
Henry is one of those Hollywood geniuses who’s good at everything. Not only does he have a knack for science and architectural design (as evidenced by an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine that places a melted marshmallow perfectly on his s’more), he plays the stock market like a virtuoso musician. He implores his mother to retire on the millions he has earned so that she can focus on her hobby as a children’s book writer. Apparently, Susan finds time to write and illustrate between spirited multi-player video game sessions.
That this ‘mature boy / immature mother’ conceit works so well is a tribute to Lieberher’s refreshingly smarm-free performance. Lieberher’s growing list of credits, including two wonderful 2016 entries, The Confirmation and Midnight Special, places him firmly atop the list of young Hollywood actors. His performance is genuine and uncompromising, reflecting the inherent vulnerability of all good actors. He might also be the first actor to wear aviator glasses in two movie posters, but that’s a case for historians to decide.
Director Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World, 2015, Safety Not Guaranteed, 2012) does a wonderful job handling the quiet character moments in the film’s first half. We see the generous (but oddly disconcerting) fatherly dynamic between Henry and Susan, as well as the nurturing relationship between Henry and his adorable eight-year-old brother, Peter (Jacob Tremblay). Watts, Tremblay, and Lieberher have all worked together before, and their natural chemistry shows. Small scenes, like the good-night ritual that decides the status of the nightlight (“on or off?”) and the bedroom door (“open or closed?”), feel like a familiar window into this fragile little world.
Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) and Peter (Jacob Tremblay)
Speaking of windows…
Trevorrow and his screenwriter, Gregg Hurwitz, officially lose control of their story the moment Henry spies his next door neighbor, Mr. Sickleman (Dean Norris), sexually abusing his young stepdaughter Christina (Maddie Ziegler) through his bedroom window. Thus begins a bizarre string of events that starts with Henry concocting an intricate plan in his notebook to free Christina, and ends with a massive sniper rifle that would make John Wick blush.
What began as a poignant family drama about loss and acceptance unspools into a half-assed thriller where each twist is dumber than the last. As Susan meticulously follows each instruction from Henry’s notebook, you’re asking yourself, “She isn’t really going to do this, is she?” Trevorrow filters the anguish and sorrow of the film’s first half through a prism of anger and resentment in the film’s second half. It feels like nothing less than a betrayal after investing your heart so thoroughly in these characters.
All of this cloak-and-dagger nonsense also opens the door to myriad plot and thematic inconsistencies. The entire premise is enabled, after all, by a rampant child molester (the town’s chief of police, no less!) who doesn’t understand the concept of window coverings. This is a predator whose greatest indiscretion, until the moment his treachery is conveniently revealed, is complaining about Susan’s unraked leaves accumulating in his yard.
This is a protagonist (Henry) who, despite being so sickened by violence that he tries to stop an altercation between two strangers in a grocery store, suddenly embraces deception and cold-blooded murder as solutions to his problem.
This is a woman (Susan) so helpless that she hesitates to authorize an emergency surgical procedure for Henry because Henry is too incapacitated to advise her. And yet, we’re asked to believe she somehow possesses the requisite skills to enact an assassination plot that requires split-second timing and impeccable decision making. A would-be assassin, incidentally, who is still the only caregiver to an eight-year-old boy!
Given the complete ridiculousness of the film’s final 40 minutes, it’s fair to wonder if Henry is really that smart, or if he’s just surrounded by idiots.
The Book of Henry won’t make all viewers this angry, but it’s sure to confuse anyone inspired by the heartfelt drama so beautifully executed in the film’s opening hour. It’s as though the filmmakers forgot they still had 40 minutes to fill, so they concocted a ridiculous suspense story to pad the time. The Book of Henry certainly won’t be the worst movie of 2017, but it might be one of the most baffling.