REVIEW: The Book of Henry [2017]

Score: 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 105 minutes | Release Date: June 16th, 2017 (USA)
Studio: Focus Features
Director(s): Colin Trevorrow
Writer(s): Gregg Hurwitz

“I want to see the sky”

There’s a lot of backlash against director Colin Trevorrow for reasons he didn’t necessarily earn. Most of the vitriol stems from his being scooped up by the Hollywood studio machine after helming just one indie film. That debut was the Sundance award-winning Safety Not Guaranteed, a small-scale sci-fi written by Derek Connolly. Suddenly Trevorrow was vaulted to A-list status—again something he didn’t quite earn—to helm Jurassic World and to takeover Star Wars: Episode IX from another festival darling turned tent-pole director Josh Trank (whose rising star conversely plummeted fast). We’re talking about untested white males given keys to castles they cannot begin to comprehend despite neither writing the film that put them in the room. Is it fair? No. But it doesn’t have to taint success.

Here’s the thing: our expectations for horror stories like Trank’s (falling short of his new bosses’ hopes and derailing his entire career in the process) don’t negate the promise of those who rose to the occasion. This doesn’t mean I think Trevorrow deserves the high praise Hollywood brass has bestowed upon him, though. Safety Not Guaranteed‘s brilliance is in its script. Jurassic World‘s astronomical box office take is due to a crew of hundreds and brand recognition. But while this should give us pause in blindly accepting Trevorrow’s ascension over others who paid their dues much earlier (see Patty Jenkins and Gina Prince-Bythewood finally getting their chance now), it shouldn’t attract the sort of blind rage we’re seeing within the critical sphere. Your rage should target the system.

It’s this odd situation rife with preconceptions and built-in bias that placed The Book of Henry in the precarious position of becoming the final word on Trevorrow’s career. Rather than be a movie with the latitude to be appreciated or reviled on its own merits, it’s been transformed into the smoking gun proving what so many have been saying: Trevorrow is the worst director since Uwe Boll. There’s so much wrong with this opinion, the least of which is the fact that the film’s shortcomings ultimately stem from Gregg Hurwitz‘s ambitiously misguided script. But it’s a better story to put the onus on Trevorrow instead. It’s the lazier story to blame the whipping boy everyone wants to see fail for reasons outside his control. And it’s a shame.

This should have been and almost was his sophomore effort before the dinosaurs coaxed him away. Would he have been afforded that opportunity if it were? Maybe. Yes. I don’t think the hate would’ve been so strong if The Book of Henry was released before Hollywood made Trevorrow its favorite son. Sadly we’ll never know. I personally tried going in without that baggage to give the film and Hurwitz the benefit of the doubt and doing so resulted in the discovery that it’s not half bad. There are definite errors in judgment, ineffective tonal shifts (that don’t come out of nowhere after all), and a tidy conclusion never afforded the space to come off as anything but dream sequence (it’s not). But there’s a lot to like too.

At its core the movie is about a mother (Naomi Watts‘ Susan Carpenter) and as such does come off a bit weird. The reason is that Susan’s a woman-child. She isn’t responsible, plays videogames all day, and relies on eleven-year old son Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) for the heavy lifting. He balances the checkbook, deals with the stock market to alleviate Mom’s financial strain, and serves as protector of younger brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay). So we watch with pity as Henry is stretched thin. We assume he doesn’t mind because he’s paying Susan back—he didn’t exit the womb with a calculator in-hand after all. We can believe her lack of confidence to make a decision or be their guardian because she’s used to being the one looked after.

It’s an intriguing premise that doesn’t quite work. You could argue movies constantly use the man-child trope, but those examples are generally propped up by a woman his age or older. Turning Henry into Susan’s crutch, however, is a means to infantilize her. This in turn colors her actions considering her penchant for the drink (with alcoholic friend Sheila, played by Sarah Silverman) and ignoring adult things like raking leaves and picking her children up on time. It’s therefore impossible to empathize with her in any way. She’s instead the albatross that keeps Henry from his full potential. We don’t hate her, but we also don’t approve. So when she’s forced to step to the plate later on, it’s not easy to fully get in her corner.

This is mainly why the final third falls apart. We spend so much time appreciating Henry’s genius and compassion that we’re ill suited to remain involved once he’s absent. We want to see how his relationship with Peter evolves. We want to see how he finally gets his mother to sit down and listen attentively to all the things she needs to know in order to survive the twenty-first century. We want to see how he figures out the answer to the problem plaguing him: the abuse of his neighbor Christina (Maddie Ziegler, of Sia music video fame) by the hand of her “connected” stepfather Glenn (Dean Norris). We want these things because Henry is the single most interesting piece of the whole. And his absence is immense.

But instead of going full-bore into insanity—something I assumed considering the bile thrown by critics placing the film on par with The Room for D-movie cult train-wreck status—Hurwitz turns things pitch black serious. Susan is thrown onto a scavenger hunt to accomplish what Henry cannot and in doing so re-discovers her identity along with the maturity to recognize her son—genius or not—is a child. He doesn’t have the capacity to think through the consequences of his hyperbolic actions or the potential damage they can inflict upon the human soul. What he demands from Susan is so wildly reactive and nuclear in its destructive nature that anyone else besides a woman who needs her son’s permission to make every decision would pause to question it.

It’s the possibility of Susan reaching this moment of clarity that serves as the film’s climax. On one hand it takes us to a strange headspace before convenient dominoes are allowed to fall. On the other it’s only made possible because Hurwitz’s characters are embellished beyond stereotype into fantastical caricatures that never seem real. So while we do want to keep watching to see what happens—despite nothing present warranting the label “surprise”—we never truly care about anyone’s mortality. They are all pieces to a puzzle with unwritten fates possessed with the potential to really shock us without ever doing so. I feel like many people are dismissing what Hurwitz and Trevorrow did because they went too far. I’d argue they didn’t go far enough.

That’s an incongruous revelation considering the film is a middle-aged woman’s coming-of-age tale using child molestation as catalyst. In more ways than one this should prove far enough to turn heads with expressions of pure confusion. But it’s not when you don’t fully embrace that chaos. There are too many instances of “ordinary” (Maxwell Simkins‘ hilariously unfiltered innocence as contrast to Henry’s brilliance, a shoe-horned love interest in Lee Pace‘s Dr. Daniels, and unearned moments of rousing emotion like Peter’s “magic trick” being met with rapturous applause rather than patronizing sympathy) derailing things. There’s too much convenience in letting events happen in ways that won’t permanently damage the “good guys”. It’s a film about sacrifice ultimately built around cowardice. An oddity with unfulfilled merit; it’s a memorable failure.

[1] (l to r.) Jacob Tremblay as Peter, Jaeden Lieberher as Henry, and Naomi Watts as Susan in director Colin Trevorrow’s THE BOOK OF HENRY, a Focus Features release. Credit: Alison Cohen Rosa / Focus Features
[2] (l-r.) Dean Norris as Glenn Sickleman and Naomi Watts as Susan Carpenter in director Colin Trevorrow’s THE BOOK OF HENRY, a Focus Features release. Credit: Alison Cohen Rosa / Focus Features
[3] Maddie Ziegler stars as Christina in director Colin Trevorrow’s THE BOOK OF HENRY, a Focus Features release. Credit: Alison Cohen Rosa / Focus Features

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