The Book of Henry awkwardly mashes together compelling individual elements, giving rise to a jarring and otherwise confounding viewing experience.
11-year old Henry Carpenter (Jaeden Lieberher) is a full-fledged boy genius who is capable of doing everything from managing his family’s finances to building a highly-elaborate clubhouse out in the woods, and even making lucrative investments so that he, his single mother Susan (Naomi Watts) and younger brother, Peter (Jacob Tremblay), can all live a comfortable life in their small town. However, there’s one thing that Henry seemingly can’t do and that is to help Christina (Maddie Ziegler): the girl around his age who lives next door to Henry, alone with her abusive stepfather and the local police commissioner, Glenn Sickleman (Dean Norris).
After multiple failed attempts to protect Christina by conventional means, Henry concocts a rather elaborate plan to rescue her and writes it all down in his handy-dandy red notebook. Unfortunately, due to unforeseen complications that arise thereafter, Henry is unable to carry out this mission on his own. Thus, it falls to Susan to save Christina instead by following the instructions that have been written out for her in “The Book of Henry”.
The Book of Henry is the third feature-length directorial effort from Colin Trevorrow, following his critical breakout success on the 2012 indie film Safety Not Guaranteed and his first leap into the world of big-budget franchise moviemaking, with 2015’s Jurassic World. In the wake of the overall lukewarm critical reception for Jurassic World, the hope was that Book of Henry would serve as something of a palate cleanser for Trevorrow, bringing him back to his roots in original, low-budget, cinematic storytelling before he sets to work on his next blockbuster – Star Wars: Episode IX. Unfortunately, Trevorrow’s third movie is more of an ambitious misfire than confident next step forward in the filmmaker’s development. The Book of Henry awkwardly mashes together compelling individual elements, giving rise to a jarring and otherwise confounding viewing experience.
Book of Henry recalls last year’s critical misfire Passengers, in that its screenplay – the first produced film script by longtime novelist, TV show writer and comic book author, Gregg Hurwitz – is a messy collage of emotional tones and genres that don’t come together to form a cohesive whole, as a narrative. Trevorrow has said that an earlier draft of the script by Hurwitz (himself, a specialist in crime literature) was “more of a black comedy,” but the story that actually made it onto the big screen is part whimsical boy genius tale, part family tearjerker and part dramatic thriller. Similar to how Passengers has been accused of being a horror movie that doesn’t realize that it’s a horror movie, Book of Henry never properly acknowledges the darkly comical side of its overarching plot. Moreover, by (in essence) attempting to blend three movies into one, Book of Henry robs its plot threads of the emotional impact they could have as individual storylines. It’s an admirable attempt at being truly original, but a misguided one all the same.
Script issues aside, Trevorrow’s direction on Book of Henry is on the whole sturdy, if otherwise unremarkable. Working alongside his Jurassic World cinematographer John Schwartzman, Trevorrow crafts a decent portrait of a small-town setting that feels lived-in and tangible, yet lacks a distinct sense of time and place. The more light-hearted moments and scenes in the film get most of their personality from the score composed by Michael Giacchino (another Jurassic World alum) rather than the direction, but Trevorrow and his production team do create an effective sense of tension and suspense during the thriller-style portions of the film. Trevorrow is less successful at transitioning Book of Henry between its tonal shifts, often using a basic fade-to-black to keep things moving from one turn of events to another. Unfortunately, this only further calls attention to the clunky and episodic design of the larger movie.
Fortunately, Trevorrow proves more adept at encouraging solid performances from Book of Henry‘s talented main cast. Young leads Jaeden Lieberher (Midnight Special) and Jacob Tremblay (Room) have good screen chemistry and make for a convincing pair of onscreen brothers, as a result. However, as emotionally-authentic and believable as Lieberher and Tremblay are in Book of Henry, the pair can only do so much to bring greater depth to their respective roles and compensate for the rather-contrived nature of their characters, as they are written. Similarly, Naomi Watts delivers yet another multifaceted and moving performance in her own right, yet is undermined by her character’s under-cooked arc. Susan’s coming of parent-age journey relies too heavily on plot conveniences and jumps in logic, while Book of Henry itself arguably paints Watts’ character – who is the true protagonist of the film – in a harsher light than she deserves (bringing to mind similar criticisms of Jurassic World‘s treatment of its own female lead).
While Maddie Ziegler (best known for her work on Dance Moms and music video collaborations with Sia) does fine work in the role of Christina, Book of Henry dances around exploring the psychology of a traumatized young girl, save for a couple of brief scenes that allude to how Christina deals with her pain through artistic expression. Dean Norris as the evil step-parent in this “fairy tale” makes for a pretty flat villain too, in no small part because Book of Henry tends to tell, rather than show, the audience that his character is too respected in his small community to face the repercussions for his behavior. Sarah Silverman also pops up for a few scenes as Susan’s wine-loving best friend and co-worker, Sheila, but the character’s interactions with Henry leave far less of an emotional impression than the movie seems to presume they do.
Often baffling to the point of being fascinating for the wrong reasons, Book of Henry comes across as a project that probably read as being very intriguing on paper, yet is rather aloof in actual motion. Book of Henry is admirable in the way that it aspires to take audiences on a roller coaster ride of emotions that can match (and maybe exceed) the thrill-ride experience of your average spectacle-driven Hollywood summer tentpole. Unfortunately, it simply doesn’t have much in the way of success with achieving that goal. Book of Henry‘s three-movies-in-one approach will no doubt work for some moviegoers, but for others it’s more likely to incite unintended laughs and confusion that anything else. Here’s to hoping that things work out better for Trevorrow when he charts a course to a galaxy far, far away.
The Book of Henry is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 105 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language.
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