Book of Henry, The (United States, 2017)

June 15, 2017
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Book of Henry, The Poster

Warning: Potential spoilers, although they reveal only things from the first half of the movie.

If you look hard enough, it’s possible to find worthwhile elements in The Book of Henry, an overwrought, tonally inconsistent drama about cancer, death, and child abuse. For example, the segments focused on grief and the pain of losing a loved one are poignant and believable. They hit home and do so with considerable force. Whether director Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World) and screenwriter Gregg Hurwitz stack the deck is another question but one can reasonably expect a certain level of manipulation in any melodrama. The problem with The Book of Henry isn’t its treatment of the title character’s death (something that happens well before the halfway point) but what happens after that.

Suspension of disbelief is an oh-so-tricky hurdle for a movie like this to overcome and The Book of Henry fails to achieve it. Viewers watch with increasing incredulity during the film’s second act as 11-year old genius Henry (Jaeden Lieberher), speaking from beyond the grave via a cassette tape, holds conversations with his mother, Susan (Naomi Watts). He says something, she responds, and with a soothsayer’s prescience, he has a comeback. What’s more, not only does Henry converse with his mother but he talks her through a convoluted plot to kill their neighbor, Police Commissioner Glenn Sickleman (Dean Norris), who is abusing his stepdaughter, Christina (Maddie Ziegler). “Contrived” doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Although The Book of Henry’s narrative failings are sufficient to sink it, there’s also something off-putting about the way it seemingly exploits child abuse in the service of a thriller. Okay, this is far from the first movie to do this but Hurwitz and Trevorrow want this production to be something more than generic so their use of this hot-button issue (and their decision to give Stickleman no depth, instead turning him into a one-dimensional representation of evil) is off-putting.

The Book of Henry opens with some promise, even though it feels like an adaptation of a YA novel (which it isn’t – even though Hurwitz is a novelist, this is an original screenplay). Perhaps that’s because it’s always fun to follow a young character who’s smarter and more self-aware than the adults around him. At 11 years old, Henry has the wisdom and knowledge of someone five times his age. In his household, which is comprised of his mom and his brother, Peter (Jacob Tremblay, the young boy who was trapped with Oscar-winner Brie Larson in Room), Henry is the adult. He pays the bills, makes the investments, and keeps everything running smoothly. Meanwhile, his mother plays video games and gets drunk with her gal-pal, Sheila (Sarah Silverman). Henry suspects his next-door neighbor, Christina, is being victimized by her stepfather but, before he can prove anything, he becomes afflicted with a fast-growing, malignant form of brain cancer that kills him. He leaves behind a detailed plan of how to free Christina by killing one of the community’s most respected citizens.

Henry’s death, which occurs around the 45-minute mark, is where the worm begins to turn. Up to that point, it’s possible to hope the movie might avoid all the pitfalls inherent in PG-13 films about cancer and child abuse. As I mentioned earlier, Hurwitz’s script can be given credit for the way it represents the grief that accompanies loss (especially in Peter’s case – the void left in the child’s life by the elimination of his brother is heartbreaking). But it subsequently goes off the rails, resorting to clichés and plot contortions that are less believable than had Henry’s ghost appeared to give instructions.

The Book of Henry is a bad stumble for Trevorrow, who has been riding high since Jurassic World and getting the plum gig of directing Star Wars Episode IX. Jurassic World proved that he could handle big-budget films with lots of action and special effects; The Book of Henry raises legitimate questions about his ability to helm smaller, character-based movies. This film’s tone is so inconsistent as to cause whiplash and it frequently substitutes emotional manipulation for intelligence. Focus Features has given The Book of Henry a summer release in the hope it will find favor among those who aren’t interested in the bigger, louder titles cramming multiplexes. Unfortunately, it’s no better than most of those and worse than more than a few.

Book of Henry, The (United States, 2017)

Director: Colin Trevorrow
Cast: Naomi Watts, Jaeden Lieberher, Jacob Tremblay, Dean Norris, Maddie Ziegler, Sarah Silverman, Lee Pace
Home Release Date: 2017-10-03
Screenplay: Gregg Hurwitz
Cinematography: John Schwartzman
Music: Michael Giacchino
U.S. Distributor: Focus Features
Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 2017-06-16
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Mature Themes)
Genre: Drama/Thriller
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1