Movie Review: “The Book of Henry,” with Jaeden Lieberher, Naomi Watts, Jacob Tremblay, and Dean Norris
Be aware: The Book of Henry is going to be one of the most divisive films of 2017. It will have its defenders, and I am not one of them. This movie is one confused “What the fuck?” sequence after another, culminating in a truly infuriating final act that renders everything that came before meaningless. If the ending of a movie can occur without anything that preceded it needing to occur, then the storytelling of that film is fundamentally flawed—and The Book of Henry is phenomenal in its exemplification of that error.
The latest film from director Colin Trevorrow (who previously made the good Safety Not Guaranteed and the needless Jurassic World, and who helms the upcoming Star Wars: Episode IX), The Book of Henry is written by thriller author Gregg Hurwitz, and you can probably blame both men for the script’s massive tonal shifts and overall discordant feel. Nothing about The Book of Henry makes sense in relation to anything else; no two elements seem to be at home in the same film. There is a vintage, cozy kind of small-town aesthetic here that doesn’t jibe with the story’s very dark turns. There are characters whose personalities and motivations don’t make a coherent whole. And there is an onslaught of emotional manipulation that makes the film feel spectacularly disingenuous—brain tumors, child abuse, deadbeat dads, and uncaring adults are all weapons the film wields to try and make you care. It is brazenly deceitful.
The film focuses on the titular Henry (Jaeden Lieberher, of The Confirmation), an 11-year-old genius who basically runs his family’s household. His mother Susan (Naomi Watts, of Allegiant) is a constantly-running-late waitress who spends her days playing video games and her nights getting a little too tipsy with friend and coworker Sheila (Sarah Silverman, of Wreck-It Ralph). The extent of her mothering is urging Henry to “pick up a bad habit or something” and tucking him into bed each night. But she adores him, as does his younger brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay, of The Smurfs 2), who constantly seeks Henry’s companionship and approval.
It’s Henry who does the finances, using a payphone outside school to trade stocks while waiting for Susan to pick them up; Henry who protects Peter from the schoolyard bully; and Henry who is 100% certain that their next-door neighbor, police commissioner Glenn (Dean Norris, of Secret In Their Eyes), is abusing his stepdaughter Christina (Maddie Ziegler), on whom Henry has a crush. But these idiotic, irresponsible, totally unbelievably written adults just won’t listen to Henry! His principal won’t do anything, the child abuse hotline won’t do anything, and Henry is damn mad. “When someone hurts someone else, I think it is our business,” Henry says, and so he goes about scribbling in his red notebook a plan that he won’t share until the time is right—which is right around when the film throws out its first twist.
To give away more would veer into spoiler territory, but suffice to say that the film works itself into a pretzel to complicate matters that would be pretty easily solved if any of these characters actually talked to each other. Henry angrily complains about how “Violence isn’t the worst thing in the world, [it’s] apathy,” but in servicing that superficially empathetic declaration, he and Susan make an increasingly ridiculous series of decisions that defy any kind of interior film or exterior real-world logic. Instead of talking to each other, or to other people in their community, or to Christina herself, they surge forward into a plot that unravels so spectacularly by the conclusion that it is truly a colossal waste of time.
And honestly, Henry has some real jerky tendencies, often using his intelligence to disrespect and undermine others. He may say “I prefer precocious” as a descriptor, but he truly kind of sucks. He calls adults by their first names, he mocks his mother, he belittles her best friend (calling her “fashion roadkill”), he refuses to believe that anyone could know more about anything than him. He is essentially the nightmare child that Chris Evans hoped his niece wouldn’t be in Gifted, but no one calls Henry out on any of it.
Instead, he is celebrated, exalted, and admired, and that is infuriating given that Christina—the character around which everything that happens in this movie actually circles—has no personality whatsoever. She has maybe 10 lines of dialogue, and she certainly is never directly asked for her opinions, reactions, feelings, or thoughts. Because Ziegler is an accomplished dancer (yes, you recognize her from those Sia music videos), the character has a climactic ballet performance, but that is not enough to make up for a preceding hour of ignorance. The movie only uses her as a victim, as someone who is injured so that we can learn more about characters like Henry and Susan, and that is terrible.
The only strong points here are the production aspects by the likes of production designer Kalina Ivanov, set director Joanne Ling, and costume designer Melissa Toth, who create the comfortably disheveled world of the Carpenter home, and the performances, from Watts especially. Now settled firmly into her put-upon-mom phase (see: Allegiant, St. Vincent, The Impossible), Watts has great chemistry with Lieberher and Tremblay, even though the script forces her into the role of an incompetent mother more interested in single-shooter video games than understanding how online banking works. Even as the movie gets unbearably absurd and does wrong by all of its characters except for Henry, Watts is a steady, committed presence.
(Aside: How have they managed to stay alive this long if Susan is such a crappy mother? Has Henry been investing in stocks and balancing her checkbook since infancy? The movie makes a half-hearted joke about Susan receiving alimony payments, but the actual details of the Carpenter household are less interesting for the filmmakers than the idiotic plan Henry cooks up.)
Obviously, I could rant about practically every aspect of this film for a very long time, and that is because The Book of Henry is a mess. In a way, I almost admire it, almost in shock that it’s getting a theater release from Focus Features and that it snagged an up-and-coming director like Trevorrow. But at the same time, this movie is so deceitfully aiming at a certain kind of viewer—the kind who would consider Henry’s erasure of his mother’s decision making charming rather than pretentious, and who would laugh at ayoung white child rapping “shiznit” instead of finding it unbearably twee—that I’m also not surprised at all. The Book of Henry will find an audience. Please don’t let it include you.