The Book of Henry is a film about legacy. If you can’t fulfil your potential yourself for reasons outside of your control, then how do you achieve your desired outcome? It is a film that breaks at least two rules of conventional Hollywood storytelling in a brave and, according to this reviewer, foolhardy way. You might not enjoy it. It might not be in multiplexes next week, but in a way it is admirable.
Directed by Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World, Safety Not Guaranteed) and written by crime novelist Gregg Hurwitz (Careful What You Wish For), it stars Jaeden Lieberher with an intentionally uneven haircut as Henry Carpenter, a child prodigy being raised with his younger brother (Jacob Tremblay) by his waitress single mom, Susan (Naomi Watts). Henry is computer-savvy. He does stocks and shares, making investments on behalf of the family – although Mom doesn’t really care about these. He is selfless, allowing his brother to take one of his medals to elementary school where they both study, though he looks Middle School age. The medal is broken but Henry doesn’t shed a tear. He stands in front of the class and gives a speech about legacy in which he says that what is important is being here, now. He suspects that the girl next door (Maddie Ziegler) is being abused by her stepfather (Dean Norris) but the authorities won’t listen. The stepfather has a brother in the police force who can make any accusation disappear.
This is dark stuff, not the topic of your usual, family-friendly Hollywood heart-warmer. It may even be tasteless. Imagine being a child in an abusive household in North America watching this movie and feeling even more helpless. This film isn’t going to inspire them. It has the feel of a light Hollywood children’s movie – Diary of a Wimpy Kid meets Rear Window – minus the comedy payoffs. It isn’t realistic either. The one element of levity is Sarah Silverman as an alcoholic waitress – she has a smart tongue and crack comedy timing as well as a look-at-me tattoo. This is a small mercy.
If you think Henry is too good to be true, too clever beyond his years and in control of his emotions, wait for the mid-movie plot development that takes the film into a different genre; then the finale, which takes into another genre still. I don’t want to spoil it – but I kind of do, because it is so out there.
What is even more out of place is that it is narrated by a child, even though it is really ‘weird things I made my Mom do’. If you wanted to seduce the audience, to make them believe in the drama, you should place Mom front and centre and have her narrate it. She goes on an incredible emotional journey.
Susan may go through the wringer but you don’t. The film has elements that ought to appeal to your sympathy but they are divested of emotional impact because you cannot believe in the writer’s artistic choices. They don’t just work together – plus you can think of an alternative plan that Henry might devise that is far more sensible than the one shown here.
There is something else that Trevorrow and Hurwitz could have done to sell the story: root it in some form of reality by informing us that there really are bright kids like Henry who aren’t on the savant side of the autistic spectrum – Henry is a science whizz and has fine motor skills. Who is like him? The film might best be understood as a fable about adults with incredible gifts who make the most sense but aren’t listened to. In a world where Donald Trump is President and Brexit is happening without sound economic justification, there are many rationalists who are shouted down by ‘the will of the people’. If the majority vote that the world is flat or that climate change doesn’t exist, then it must be true, right? Democracy is about giving clever, informed, compassionate people the right to rule – not giving the public binary choices and then saying ‘they must be right – let’s press ahead’.
The Book of Henry is a Hollywood film that in its way is as out there as movies produced by the religious right in which, for example, you can enter a shack to talk to God. It is Democrat kitsch. The actors do their best. At one point Watts resembles Charlize Theron in an upcoming role – I’ll leave you to guess it. It is not, at any point, relatable – and that will ensure that this Book will remain for the most part unread.
The Book of Henry is out in cinemas now