A tearjerker with no tears, a thriller with no thrills, and a family film which manipulates and undermines the value of true familial love, The Book of Henry is an atrocity. Cancer. Parental neglect. Police corruption. Child abuse. Suicide. The Book of Henry has it all in spades, and manages to manipulate all these real-life tragedies and injustices into…sentimentality? A nice happy ending? A Very Good Story? A voiceover narration from the titular Henry posits this last interpretation in the final scenes of the film, as if the screenwriter were trying very hard to convince the audience, “What you just watched was, in fact, very well written.”
The Book of Henry is not a “bad” film in the same sense of The Room or Troll 2. It’s not an incoherent action montage in the vein of the Transformers films, nor is it laughably bad and destined for cult classic status like Ed Wood films. No, the badness of Henry is more insidious, even nefarious, in its desire to manipulate the audience’s emotions and moral imagination to consider the unthinkable and inconceivable as somehow right and good and true. There is nothing remotely true in this film, either in terms of authenticity to reality nor adherence to moral and spiritual ideals. The way characters interact and speak with one another, the decisions they make and the motivations behind those decisions–all of these are patently false, hollow, and unrealistic. The music (the score from Michael Giacchino) and direction (Jurassic World‘s Colin Trevorrow) pointedly attempt to slowly suck the audience into the film’s maw, gaslighting the viewer into believing that this film’s premise and story might be plausible, or worse, acceptable.
Henry (Jaeden Lieberher, whose career seems destined for playing quirky/special children who wear goggles; he was in Midnight Special and St. Vincent) is a self-described precocious kid, a hyper-intelligent 11-year-old wunderkind who can successfully play the stock market on a pay phone (?!) outside of his school and accurately read MRI scans with calm confidence. Henry’s intelligence is never explained or shown; it simply is, and we must accept that Henry is essentially omniscient and always makes the right decisions. With an adult-like level of responsibility and duty, Henry takes care of his younger brother Peter (Room‘s Jacob Trembley) and his adolescent-like mother Susan (Naomi Watts). Susan plays video games, eats dessert for dinner, flips off her kids, drinks a lot of alcohol, and does all sorts of other childlike things in her stunted emotional maturity while Henry runs the home. This is all made to seem cutesy and twee; parental neglect and irresponsibility is oh-so charming, right? The plot thickens as Henry suspects that a classmate living next door, Christina (Maddie Ziegler), is being abused by her gruff step-father (Dean Norris), Mr. Sickleman (get it? “sick man”). Henry bursts into his school principal’s office and demands that something be done to stop the abuse, but because Sickleman is the police commissioner, the principal refuses to contact CPS on a child’s behalf (?!). Henry decides to take matters into his own hands.
What follows gives away the plot of The Book of Henry, but it needs to be mentioned so you know the terribleness you are missing. So, spoiler warning: Henry is diagnosed with a brian tumor and dies, but not before a boozy Sarah Silverman semi-romantically kisses him on the lips (!?!). His dying wish, outlined in his red notebook for his mother to execute, is that Susan would murder Sickleman and take custody of Christina. So Susan follows the elaborate plan in Henry’s book to buy a sniper rifle and set up the assassination, all prompted by Henry’s voice in her ear, as he has voiced every step she needs to take into a tape recorder. Because Henry is soooooo smart, he’s made it clear that this suburban mob hit is the Only Possible Way. It’s the very worst Make-A-Wish Foundation request ever imagined. And the audience is made to believe it’s meaningful, even good. I will note that despite the final 40 minutes of the film following Susan’s execution of this impossibly stupid plan, she ultimately makes the right choice to not murder her neighbor in the woods. The reasoning behind Susan’s decision is the only consistent part of the plot, as it’s an immature and illogical motivation, which fits the pre-assassination depiction of her character–she sees a picture of Henry and murmurs, “you’re just a child.” But the scriptwriter, Gregg Hurwitz, can’t let it go. So he has Sickleman commit suicide, leaving Susan to still illegally adopt Christina (Susan forged Sickleman’s signature on the custody papers), making Susan, Christina, and Peter one happy Henry-less family as the credits role. Oh, and don’t forget Lee Pace portraying the neurosurgeon who diagnoses Henry’s cancer as the film positions him as the love interest for Naomi Watts (?!?!). Nothing sparks romance like the death of a child and attempted murder. End Spoilers.
The above plot mechanics are almost fantasy-like in their inability to connect with reality. It’s like a quirky 11-year-old penned the script in a notebook somewhere, then was given a few million dollars to turn it into a movie. I may show this film in the future as a discussion for how not to make a film (or at least how to make a terrible film appear better than it truly is). The film’s message emphasizes moral evils as good; the script doesn’t take death or abuse seriously, using them as mere plot devices to move the story along; and true familial connections are deemphasized for the sake of attempted humor or mawkish sentiment. This is all an offense to any person who has experienced abuse or the death of a family member.
Naomi Watts is so much better than this material, and she does her best to elevate it beyond what the script and direction allow. She’s shown such excellence in roles from Mulholland Drive to The Impossible to Eastern Promises; I think one of my personal favorite performances is her model-in-existential-crisis from I Heart Huckabees. Why she has recently chosen inane and poorly-received projects (e.g. The Sea of Trees, Shut In) is beyond my understanding. Speaking of strange career decisions, Colin Trevorrow’s filmography is worth noting: he began with the indie film Safety Not Guaranteed, followed by the huge blockbuster Jurassic World. He’s presently in line to make the sequel to Jurassic World and Star Wars film. Something compelled him to make The Book of Henry. An idea written in red notebook, perhaps? A childish voice in his ear whispering how to make this movie? Whatever that “something” was, let’s hope he doesn’t follow its directions again.
IMDB Listing: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4572792/