SPOILER WARNING: This review contains spoilers for The Book of Henry. Proceed at your own risk.
Director Colin Trevorrow is rising up in the world. In 2015, he made Jurassic World which managed to be one of the highest grossing films of all time. It was a job so lucrative that he managed to get a job directing Star Wars: Episode IX. Of course, his career didn’t start that way. Prior to this, he worked in TV and short documentaries before eventually making his feature film debut with Safety Not Guaranteed, a grounded sci-fi dramedy that mainly relied on character interaction. It’s a highly underrated film that quite honestly has far more heart in it than any second of Jurassic World. So, before he steps into space, Trevorrow decides to get back to his routes with the independent film The Book of Henry. Not an uncommon move for a director who started out in the indie scene, but would he be able to capture that same charm he got to bubble in the surface for Safety Not Guaranteed? Or did Jurassic World truly rip him of any sense of convincing emotional engagement?
Well, that accusation is a bit unfair, given Trevorrow doesn’t have a writing credit on The Book of Henry like he did on his two previous features. Comic book writer Gregg Hurwitz is the credited screenwriter and in many ways, the titular Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) is a superhero. He’s a child with an incredibly high IQ. He’s far beyond the intellectual thought of his fellow eleven year olds in school, making elaborate inventions and handling all the financial planning for his mother Susan (Naomi Watts) & brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay ). Plus, Henry is also planning a rather decisive plot against his neighbor Police Chief Glenn Sickleman (Dean Norris), who he believes is abusing his stepdaughter Christina (Maddie Ziegler). Henry is the Superman that keeps his world from tumbling, with his mother, brother and even many of his classmates relying on his genius to help them through life’s biggest troubles.
This is all meant to be so precocious. The Book of Henry assumes we’ll be wildly charmed and endeared to this entire group because they rely on an eleven year old for so much. This makes sense for his younger brother Peter, who actually feels like a real child. Jacob Tremblay gives a believable childlike performance. When Jacob is disappointed in his life’s downturns, he has this authentic sadness on his face that carries us through moments of the film. His mixture of regret and youthful charm is infectiously cute yet emotionally honest enough to not be maudlin. It’s a shame literally NO ONE ELSE took Tremblay’s lead.
The emotional manipulation on display in The Book of Henry is insulting. Every twenty minutes has a massive tonal shift. We go from this precocious family dramedy to a medical drama to a family grieving movie to a thriller within the span of an hour and forty five minutes. There is absolutely no smooth transition going on here and a juxtaposition that honestly feels flabbergasting on a story and directorial level. We cut between a children’s talent show and an elaborated attempted assassination like this is The Godfather, which completely distracts from any sort of emotional investment. The emotional whiplash is paralyzing here, making The Book of Henry feel like the disappointing spawn of the worst Lifetime Original Movie, the worst Amblin movie and the worst dark thriller film ever made. Any emotional tether we had to this story died the moment Henry spoke his first line, but only managed to rapidly decompose by the time he breaths his last breath.
Jaeden Lieberher – despite his impressive work in last year’s Midnight Special with a more sci-fi style gifted character – is the type of far-too-smart genius/socially outcasted child that grates on the nerves. Every philosophical flight of fancy he spouts distances himself further from any sort of human behavior. He has the type of confidence that makes him feel more like the father of this family than the oldest son. Makes some sense, given that the father is written off as having left the boys and Susan. Still, so much is put on this kid’s plate that it honestly feels like some form of abuse for Susan to be so reliant on this kid to simply keep this household together. Even as he is dying from this tumor in his brain, Henry has little emotional contemplation, instead trying to work out everything before anyone else can say it. He manages to even be smug and unlikable as a child on his damn deathbed.
Susan’s inability to decide makes this even worse. Especially given she literally can’t make the choice to give consent to allow her child to have surgery as he is having violent seizures without asking that very same child for his thoughts. The same woman who spends more time playing video games than doing any sort of tough decision making, even after Henry’s death. Now, while all of that behavior is awful, one could maybe forgive that if The Book of Henry gives her some sort of arc. And it sort of tries? “Sort of” is being very kind, given she spends the fallout of Henry’s death by brain tumor going with the meticulous plan he mapped out to catch the abuse going on next door for her step by step… until moments before she could commit the awful deed. Keeping in mind this involves:
- Completely accepting that any kind of outside help is out of the question
- Buying an illegal assault weapon
- Training herself to shoot this weapon instead of providing for her living son or even watching out for him
- Establishing an alibi of being at a talent show
- Setting up a trap by baiting the police chief neighbor with… a bird call via walkie talkie taped to a tree?
- Shooting that man from her sons’ clubhouse and discarding all evidence
She manages to go with five out of six of those steps, only stopping short because she realizes that Henry was “a child” via photos of him as a child that conveniently pop up there thanks to an invention he had in his clubhouse. It’s meant to be the big emotional crux of The Book of Henry, but it reads as hollow to a enraging degree. There’s so much talk of Henry not being a parent and that he didn’t teach her how to be a mom… but she’s a horrendously untrustworthy parent. No good mother would take so long to question this elaborate set up that is going on. No good mother would intensely play video games and dump all fiscal responsibility on her eleven year old son without any sort of fight. No good mother would THEN ask him to take things easy and not accept any responsibility for what’s going on. All of this makes Susan emotionally immature to the point of neglect… yet she ends up getting total custody of the abused girl next door at the end?!
None of this is helped by the lack of any concrete adult character in The Book of Henry. Dean Norris just sort of scowls out the side of his face like a mad puppy without any kind of guidance. Sarah Silverman is here to have an implied alcohol problem, look pretty and kiss a dying child on the lips in an incredibly creepy fashion. Lee Pace is… just there to smile and be at least a foot taller than every other cast member. All are passing ships in the night to get our more prominent and horrendous lead characters from Point A to Point B. The other authority figures are dense to the point of being pretty much on level with Henry’s classmates, including the principal (Tonya Pinkins) who can’t seem to see the lack of emotion on Christina’s face.
Then again, much of that has to do with Maddie Ziegler having little to no resemblance to human behavior. Of course, we also don’t have any real weight to the child abuse elements. The Book of Henry is willing to let us wade through a child dying from sudden brain tumor death and an elaborate plan to kill a corrupt cop, but not once show the true lasting consequences of the abuse. The child abuse here is magically hand waved as merely making Christina feel mopey. We get no context from her point of view or lingering effects beyond Ziegler sort of acting aloof. Henry even references bruises that we never see, perhaps to show the implied-but-never-developed Machiavellian brilliance of her stepfather to cover up this abuse. One might blame this young actress, but when even Naomi Watts can’t make any of this anywhere near authentic, there has to be something wrong with the direction.
Colin Trevorrow does a decent job with all the technical aspects of The Booky Of Henry, but misses the character stuff at every single turn. Which is fatal. Any solid visual or moody bit of lighting falls flat when the characterization feels as emotionally hollow as most everyone is here. This is really where my worries come for him taking on Star Wars next. The way he handles the family dynamics here show a complete tone deafness for what is actually going on vs the foolhardy attempts at getting us to the end of all this. For all the big moments of spectacle, the thing that has kept us connected to Star Wars really has always been the familial level connection between the characters. Even if he didn’t write this, the fact that he was willing to sign on to this based on the very basic story beats shows a lack of self awareness. With Trevorrow handles this story, I am highly sceptical of how Episode IX will end the new trilogy. Hell, at least Jurassic World was more consistent.
Anyhoo, The Book of Henry is one of the absolute worst films of the year so far. It’s astonishing how inept this feels on the most basic story level. One wonders how this story got passed the outline stage, let alone script completion and green lighting. Despite the technical craft on display that’s tolerable, there’s no authentic emotional grounding beyond Jacob Tremblay’s character and performance. Everyone else is either a hollow husk of a character or a completely unrealistic perception of humanity. Nothing here gives us an emotional grounding worth following. All of this comes off as genuinely naive on a storytelling level, to the point where every decision is questionable on every layer. The few moments of self awareness are fleeting, more as a brief write off to attempt to dispel anyone’s questioning. Unfortunately, The Book of Henry writes itself into so many corners, providing solutions that merely boxes itself into another corner on the opposite side of the wall. It’s both excessive in its attempts to be cute and painful in how it attempts to deviate from that into genuine drama or tension.
Rating: 0.5 Out of 5 Pages from Henry’s Book