Film Review – The Book of Henry is Slightly Insane and Doesn’t Quite Work

Photograph courtesy of Focus Features More than one person has suggested that critics has their knives sharpened in anticipation of the recent release of the Baywatch movie, and while I’ve seen absolutely no proof of this (I for one was excited to see it and was borderline heartbroken by the results), I will counter that by saying that it has become clear that even before seeing it, that many walked into director Colin Trevorrow’s The Book of Henry with machetes brandished and ready to hack away. Keep in mind, this is not me endorsing the film; but few things bother me more than when paid film critics start shitting on a movie before they’ve even seen it. Just for a bit of context, Trevorrow’s first feature was a great piece of character-driven low-tech science fiction called Safety Not Guaranteed, which I adored as did most. As something of a shock to the cultural system, he was next put at the helm of what ended up becoming one of the biggest movies of all time, Jurassic World, a film that I felt leaned too heavily on elements of Jurassic Park but clearly the nostalgia kick worked for a lot of people. Shortly after the tidal wave of money leveled out for that film, Trevorrow was announced as the director of Star Wars: Episode IX, and for a brief moment, the world collapsed in on itself in a panic. “How could a guy with so few films under his belt graduate to the big Spielberg-Lucas leagues so quickly? It’s not fair!” And I’m sorry to report that the world ended that day… With The Book of Henry, I’m pretty sure Trevorrow’s biggest crime is to make an insanely popular movie a couple of years ago and then follow it up with a much smaller film that doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of catching on with the masses. The filmmaker has dared to make a film that isn’t just tonally inconsistent; it’s downright schizophrenic, to the point where I want to name it Sybil. One could argue that Trevorrow has, in fact, captured a version of real life, which rarely unfolds in a single tone. I’d go along with that. The truth is, while I don’t think I can quite recommend the film, I appreciated its attempt to try something slightly insane, to take turns that most mainstream movies don’t dare, but a great number of my current favorite television shows do with regularly, where no character’s life is sacred and no plot twist is too goofy. Photograph courtesy of Focus Features I think for most audience members, the first half of The Book of Henry is fairly digestible and will have you crying your eyes out at a specific point. Henry (the fine young actor Jaeden Lieberher of St. Vincent, Midnight Special and the upcoming It) is a certifiable genius, but more than that, he a responsible, mature 12 year old who has taken to being in charge of his home and family, which consists of younger brother Peter (Room’s Jacob Tremblay) and mom Susan (Naomi Watts). Henry’s smarts are undeniable, but as far as his taking care of the household budget, his mother’s retirement fund, and her financial investments, it’s unclear whether he does that because if he didn’t, the family would fall apart, or if he’s just really good at that as well. Either way, Susan is sometimes a difficult person to like—she’s self-described bad mother who would rather play video games or go get drunk with Sheila (Sarah Silverman), her co-worker at the local diner. For the record, Susan doesn’t have to work or drive her crappy car, but by doing so she doesn’t have to confront the fact that she hasn’t got a clue how Henry has provided so well for them. Henry is also a natural protector, especially when Peter gets picked on by bullies, or more significantly when he suspects that the same-age girl next door, Christina (newcomer Maddie Ziegler), is being abused by her stepfather Glenn Sickleman (Dean Norris), who also happens to be the local police commissioner. After exhausting his options at school and with the local abuse crisis hotline (which just happens to be run by Glenn’s brother), Henry begins collecting evidence and plotting a way to stop the abuse, and right as his plan begins to gather momentum, he has a life-changing medical emergency that puts him in the care of neurosurgeon Dr. Daniels (Lee Pace). I’m sure many other review will ruin some of the more shocking turns in The Book of Henry, but I’m going to attempt not to. Even still, you should weary of spoilery details. For reasons best left unexplained, Henry is forced to push his detailed and well-documented plan to keep Glenn from hurting anyone ever again only his mother, who is losing her mind not having Henry around the house to run things. As much as the first half of the film is about his genius young man, the second half is about a woman who finally learns to be a good, smart mother, as she begins to execute Henry’s plan to the letter. I’ve read some reviewers complain that Henry is a smug little shit, but I didn’t get that at all. He seems genuinely kind and caring, and if any part of that comes off as smug, it might simply be because he doesn’t always love being the one who has to be responsible for everyone else. Photograph courtesy of Focus Features I don't think I’m ruining any secrets by saying that Henry’s plan involves killing Glenn, and his ridiculously second-by-second plot involves getting an untraceable gun, giving Susan an alibi, and getting Glenn in exactly the right place for Susan to get a clear shot at Glenn’s head. All the while, Susan is carrying out these orders like she doesn’t have a say in the matter, which of course turns out to be the point to a degree. There’s a schoolroom scene early in The Book of Henry in which Henry give a speech on the assigned topic of Legacy, and while other kids in the class talk about what they want to leave behind, Henry sees legacy as setting the stage to help others after you’re gone, which is exactly what he hopes to do for both Christina, and his mother and brother. Too much of his plan and the way he conveys it to his mother is far fetched and cutesy, and for a plan in which he’s asking her to murder another person, it seem hopelessly out of balance. But watching Watts slowly transform from a useless mess to a protector is actually quite remarkable. I’m not sure who is sending her scripts to read these days, but outside of her glorious work on the new season of “Twin Peaks,” her latest crop of films has been fairly meager. Not that this movie is some great work (it’s actually a 20-year-old script from thriller novelist Gregg Hurwitz), but Watts is quite good in it playing a not so likable character. I’ll say this again to anyone who has made it this far, The Book of Henry is a disjointed mess that I still think audiences will respond to because the emotionally jarring moments often resemble reality. The crowd I saw it with was in tears during the couple scenes that warranted it, and laughing at most of the corny jokes. Take that for what it’s worth, or better yet, see it for yourself before you start taking shots at it or the people that made it.
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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.