Single mother Susan Carpenter (Naomi Watts) has a champion in her 11 year-old son Henry (Jaeden Lieberher, "St. Vincent") who is also a hero to his 8 year-old brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay, "Room"). When Susan learns that her son's classmate and nextdoor neighbor Christina (Maddie Ziegler, TV's 'So You Think You Can Dance: The Next Generation') has a horrible secret, she sets out to save her following "The Book of Henry."
When I first saw the trailer for "The Book of Henry," I thought it looked like the worst possible combination of genres, like "Harriet the Spy" hunting down a rapist. But the film surprised me with its strong direction and performances. Still, although it is about a mother learning to become an adult through the guidance of her brilliant son, the central plot mechanism driving it is disturbing to say the least. Surely screenwriter Gregg Hurwitz could have come up with a different way to achieve the same results, one which didn't malign the lovely character he's created.
Henry is the type of boy who talks about existentialism speaking before his class, trades stocks on a payphone waiting to be picked up from school, stands up to bullies and spends his afternoons creating elaborate Rube Goldberg contraptions in his quirky treehouse. His mother plays video games as he sorts out the family finances, strong enough, he tells her, that she should quit her job as a diner waitress and buy a new car. But Susan, a woman who embraces life, enjoys working with her best friend Sheila (Sarah Silverman), giggling and drinking too much wine after work. She creates story books to read to her boys at bedtime, closing the day with cherished rituals.
Henry always has his eye out for those who cannot protect themselves. He hauls the schoolyard bully off his brother Peter and questions his mother when she stops him from intervening in an argument turning violent in a grocery store. It is what is going on next door, though, which most alarms Henry. After observing Christina once again in class, he marches into the principal's (Tonya Pinkins, "Fading Gigolo") office asking what it will take for her to report abuse of a child who comes to school exhausted, with bruises, her grades sliding. There's a big problem though. Christina's stepdad Glenn Sickleman (Dean Norris, TV's 'Breaking Bad') is the Chief of Police and, as Henry learns when he anonymously calls Child Protective Services, Glenn's brother is in charge there. Henry gets to work on a plan.
It's that plan that is this movie's problem, an infuriating misstep in a film that works so well in every other aspect. Watts is extraordinary as the childlike mom whose love for her children compensates for her lack of discipline (Susan's idea of making Peter feel better is to pack his lunches with a variety of sweets). Lieberher's Henry is pensive, brilliant and too pure to have concocted the plan Susan's tasked with carrying out. The two share a scene at the film's midpoint that will rip your heart out. Tremblay comes more into focus in the film's second half and he's strong as well, quietly assuming lessons learned from his brother. Silverman adds spice as the one person willing to tweak Henry's seriousness of purpose, a contrast to the adoration exhibited by Henry's teacher (Geraldine Hughes, "Rocky Balboa"). Lee Pace (TV's 'Halt and Catch Fire') exudes kindness and compassion as a doctor who takes an interest in the Carpenter family. Reality show dancer Maddie Ziegler gets her opportunity to shine during a climactic school talent show.
Director Colin Trevorrow ("Safety Not Guaranteed," "Jurassic World") has such a firm grasp of his material he almost hurdles Hurwitz's big obstacle, the crosscutting of his climax reminiscent of "The Godfather's" Baptism massacre, the stamping of children's feet on stage adding tense urgency to events happening elsewhere. Michael Giacchino's ("Up") score deftly buttresses the movie's changing tones. It is difficult to condemn a film that gets so much right, but consider yourself warned as condemn it you just might.
Robin did not see this film.
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