Distributor: Double Nickel Entertainment
Director: Colin Trevorrow
Writer: Greg Hurwitz
Composer: Michael Giacchino
Starring: Naomi Watts, Jaeden Lieberher, Jacob Tremblay, Sarah Silverman
The Book of Henry is a 19-years-in-the-making film by Greg Hurwitz that was finally brought to life on screen by director Colin Trevorrow. The story centers around a notebook created by child genius Henry, which contains a plan for assassinating next-door-neighbor and abuser Glenn in Henry’s final effort to rescue Glenn’s stepdaughter, Christina. The long wait between its initial writing and eventual screening may have done the film a disservice, as it tries to cram in far too many storytelling angles to the point of losing any poignancy the story might have originally had.
Violence/Scary Images: A woman is shown being shoved around in a grocery store by her boyfriend. One character commits suicide, and while the shot is heard, the act itself is not seen. It’s implied that Christina is being physically abused by her stepfather, but it is not shown. A child dies onscreen from a medical condition.
Language/Crude Humor: All of the “milder” profanities are thrown around liberally. F**k, g*dd**n, and b**ch are each used once or twice. A lewd hand gesture is seen for a fairly lengthy amount of time.
Drug/Alcohol Reference: Susan and her friend Sheila drink regularly. Sheila is implied to be an alcoholic.
Sexual content: None.
Other negative content: For most of the movie, murder is viewed as an acceptable method for saving someone from an abusive situation.
Positive Content: There’s a message about helping others in need rather than being apathetic towards people’s misdeeds and suffering, an idea that Henry fiercely champions.
There’s been a fair amount of vitriol floating around concerning this movie, so as something of a counterpoint, I’ll start by saying that I was able to enjoy most of it, at least on a superficial level. I won’t argue that it’s a good movie–it isn’t–but I didn’t think it was quite the unwatchable dumpster fire it’s been heralded as. I’ve seen movies that made me seriously consider walking out of the theater for how awful and boring they were; The Book of Henry is not one of them.
When I first heard about the movie`s premise, I imagined it would be something in the vein of Big Fat Liar and Home Alone. Both of those were campy movies with outrageous plots that aimed to provide a sort of whimsical escapism. This movie, on the other hand, chooses to play everything completely straight. This approach could probably have worked and been interesting with a more compelling setup. Unfortunately, what we get is a weakly-developed plot that can’t move forward unless the characters’ decisions are senseless and stupid.
The premise is that child genius Henry has discovered that the girl next door is being physically abused by her stepfather, Glenn. Thus, after several failed attempts to alert authorities to this abuse, he develops an elaborate plan to kill Glenn in order to rescue Christina. Story-wise, the writers’ biggest and most ridiculous error is how they handle Susan’s reasoning for going along with Henry’s assassination plan. The rationale boils down to something along the lines of “calling Child Services didn’t work, so cold-blooded murder is all we’ve got left.” Even more egregious is that the movie then tries to convince the audience to agree with this line of thinking. It’s one thing to have a character make a foolish decision; it’s quite another to try to justify that decision. In this case, neither the character motivation nor the justification for it are done well.
Susan, in fact, is probably the movies’ single greatest weakness. All of the characters are one-dimensional plot vehicles, but Susan is the linchpin that connects all of the movie’s flaws. She spends the movie’s first half pretty much entirely subjugated to Henry and unable to think for herself. She has to, you see, because there’s no way that a mature, intelligent grownup would so easily latch onto a plan as short-sighted and childish as the one Henry concocts. If Susan could think or act like an adult, we couldn’t have our insane assassination storyline.
Another flaw in the way Susan’s character is handled is that, while she’s definitely the main focus of the movie’s second half, the first half revolves entirely around Henry. Had the film focused on Susan from the beginning as its central character, and if it allowed her to develop as an individual and granted her some real agency, the story could have come together in a much cleaner way and without so many contrivances. Near the end of the movie, she comes to a realization that’s supposed to signify that she’s reached the end of her character arc, but it comes off as silly because we never see any real growth from her before then. The conclusion of her arc isn’t satisfying because her inner changes are forced and abrupt rather than organic.
It’s also due to this mishandling of characterization that the movie has such confusion with its tone. We all know the saying about trying to have your cake and eat it too. The Book of Henry is a film that tries to have its cake, eat it too, and then gives half to the neighbors.
Halfway through the movie, a drastic and shocking change takes place that shatters the world of every onscreen character. (At least, it’s meant to be drastic and shocking.) It’s at this point that Susan discovers and undertakes Henry’s planned mission to murder Glenn, and her decision to do so marks an extreme shift in the film’s atmosphere.
I don’t think, necessarily, that the movie’s inconsistency in tone is the problem. I actually love the idea of such a tonal shift, as well as the pseudo genre-swap from drama to thriller that accompanies it. Thanks to the poor story logic that I discussed earlier, however, the execution ends up feeling like a mess. With no compelling reason established for why Susan would make the choices she does, the transition is one of the story’s weakest moments. The tone in the second half is also choppy: while some scenes are darkly lit and gritty, in keeping with its departure from the melodramatic first half, others are light and often try to be funny. The result is that the tonal shift is stripped of any power it might have had, and the attempts at grittiness simply look clumsy.
The movie’s inability to hone in on a specific main character also extends to an inability to focus on a central plot. It’s hard to say exactly what The Book of Henry is actually about. A mother overcoming her sense of insufficiency as a parent? A young genius letting his flawed logic lead himself and others into moral depravity, supposedly in the name of a greater good? A family struggling to figure out how to stop the victimization of a friend whom they feel powerless to help? All of these things are present in the film, but none of them are explored or resolved sufficiently enough to be the thread on which the story hinges. In fact, for the vast majority of the movie, most of these are treated merely as a series of plot devices and character-defining traits, while no serious or challenging questions are raised about the characters’ choices.
Perhaps the most significant misstep, in a social sense rather than a theatrical one, is that the movie tries to wield all the gravitas of the very serious issue of child abuse, yet makes sure to never actually touch on the issue. We’re told that Christina’s stepfather is abusing her, yet we never see even a hint of this abuse ourselves. At no point is Christina ever involved in the plans to help her, an oversight that demotes her from a character to an object–which, in a sad sort of irony, plays into the very problem that the movie says we should scream out against.
Despite these and several more problems–mostly with the ending, which I can’t discuss without spoiling–there were a few positives. Jaeden Lieberher (Henry) and Jacob Tremblay (Peter) play well off each other as siblings, despite having to work with quite a bit of bad writing. (As an aside, I’m getting rather sick of the “geniuses know everything” cliché with which Henry is painted.) The premise itself has promise, but needs to be carried out much more skillfully than it is. Some of the more comedic moments, while terribly formulaic, are still fun.
This film certainly makes some daringly unconventional moves. Of course, such choices are risky precisely because of how easily they can fail, and The Book of Henry is a good reminder that being bold is not the same as being good.
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