MOVIE REVIEW: The Book of Henry




Tonal shifts in films can be exciting, jarring, or both.  Add in any drastic rewiring of emotional connections caused by such shifts and things can get dicey.  Ask movie fans and they will tell you ones that worked and ones that did not.  The vast middle ground becomes an overpopulated fence people declare themselves on.  Welcome to The Book of Henry and its wild pendulum.  In a 2017 already containing the likes of Get Out, It Comes at Night, and A Ghost Story, Colin Trevorrow’s film might be the most unexpected movie of the bunch so far this year.

The Book of Henry begins as a story of two elementary-aged brothers being raised by a single mother in an unnamed hamlet within Westchester County in New York.  Their flighty matriarch Susan Carpenter (Naomi Watts) drives a beat-up old Volvo and wastes time playing first-person shooter videos games between shifts as a diner waitress with her trampish bestie Sheila (Sarah Silverman).  From that predominantly inactive initiative, Susan’s two boys luckily are growing up in a charmed life, complete with a big house and equally impressive fort in the woods. 

The greatest reason for all of the quirky creativity and open-ended honesty in the Carpenter household is the older son named Henry, played by Midnight Special and St. Vincent wunderkind Jaeden Lieberher.  He is an off-the-charts prodigy languishing in public school in an effort to fit in with kids his own age (which never works).  At home, Henry’s areas of intellect and ingenuity are boundless, always springing forth with new ideas or discoveries.  His younger and more appropriately average brother Peter (Room treasure Jacob Tremblay) looks up to Henry in every possible way, leading to shared adventures and unbreakable kinship.

The endearing family drama aspects of The Book of Henry start there and then the pendulum starts swinging.  Henry begins to suspect the Carpenters’ next door neighbor, police commissioner Glenn Sickleman (Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris), of child abuse to his step-daughter Christina (newcomer Maddie Ziegler).  Since pleas for adult assistance go unanswered and logistics do not point to another alternative, the hamster wheel in Henry’s head spins down the darker path of meticulously plotting Mr. Sickleman’s murder in one of his notebooks.  Cue the Dramatic Chipmunk!   

As cockamamie as the swerves are, the performances from the boys are completely committed.  Jaeden Lieberher might be the best child actor working in the business and Jacob Tremblay is not far behind him.  They bury any angsty petulance brought by overcoaching with smooth, naturally engaging personality and presence at every moment.  Honestly, the adults cannot keep up.  Naomi Watts is all over the place, Dean Norris is allowed zero depth, Lee Pace’s doctor looks like he walked in from a different movie, and Sarah Silverman is cashing a check with minor fits of wit.

Once The Book of Henry entertains the proposition of murder, everything changes and that pendulum begins to look like a scythe cutting wheat.  One element that is unquestionably on point, no matter the switches and twitches, is composer Michael Giacchino’s diversified score.  The Lost and Pixar vet epitomizes his range between soft piano one moment and cutting strings the next.  He certainly came to play.  

From here, the less you know about The Book of Henry the better.  Don’t watch the trailer.  Even if you already have seen it, know that the movie still brims with plenty of twisted mystery yet to be revealed. 

Grant Focus Features, director Colin Trevorrow, and debuting feature writer Gregg Hurwitz all the balls in the world for putting out a movie this daringly original during the summer marketplace.  Ambition notwithstanding, the extreme tonal shifts, while effective at keeping you invested in The Book of Henry to see what happens next, only half work in totality.  The landscape of the enriching love across parents and children is pitch perfect, as evident by the gracious two leading lads.  The attempts at trepidatious suspense away from that recklessly miss.  

LESSON #1: RUBE GOLDBERG MACHINES WILL ALWAYS BE COOL-- I sure wish more kids would build silly engineering feats such as these instead of social media profiles.  Tinker!  Build! Get your hands dirty and work that brain.  These were STEM before STEM went high-tech. 

LESSON #2: TALK TO KIDS LIKE ADULTS-- I’m a big fan of the dialogue and conversations shared between Susan, Henry, and Peter in The Book of Henry.  Susan’s simpleton parenting makes her the source of the tight family’s penchant for crass honesty and it’s refreshing to hear.  If you want your children to speak with their minds with confidence, good language, and candor, they need to receive it first.  Skip the baby talk and half of your sugar-coated metaphors.  

LESSON #3: PEOPLE AND RELATIONSHIPS CONSTITUTE A LEGACY MORE THAN ACCOMPLISHMENTS-- Simply put, people are more important than status, commendations, or bank accounts.  This broken Carpenter family gets that, even with a sky’s-the-limit genius among them.  Family comes first, making the benevolence shine over the sarcasm.

LESSON #4: THE MYSTERY AND GRAY AREA ATTACHED TO THE TERM “NONE OF OUR/YOUR BUSINESS”-- Whatever the initial question that is asked to provoke this lesson’s quote as an answer only stirs up dozens more questions.  What does it mean?  What are the boundaries of one’s business?  What is being shielded?  When is intervention necessary or responsible to make whatever exists “my” business?