In 2014, a very popular novel The Fault in Our Stars was adapted for the screen. I don’t think it’s a particularly good movie but that didn’t stop me from being completely manipulated by its maudlin nature and sweepingly romantic indie soundtrack. I wept like everyone else in the theater for those cancer patients and their budding teenage romance. Very similar tactics are employed for the first two-thirds of The Book of Henry – Colin Trevorrow’s new film. And for the most-part they worked me over once again. That’s before Henry’s third act hits and takes one of the most mind-boggling turns I’ve ever seen at the cinema.
But is that a good turn you say? Oh, fuck no. What Trevorrow does to his film (that for better or worse mostly works up to this point) is so insane and misguided that in retrospect I almost admire it. It employs every possible plot machination you can shake a stick at – piling them on top of each other until, quite literally, a gun is the only thing that can put us out of our misery.
Again, before this insanity I felt Trevorrow comported himself nicely. Henry Carpenter (Jaeden Lieberher) is a self-proclaimed precocious 11-year old who also happens to be a genius. He goes to a normal elementary school, even when pushed by his teachers to go elsewhere. He lives with his younger brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay) and his mother Susan (Naomi Watts.) Henry is quite-literally the “man” of the house. He keeps all the family finances, trolls the stock market and makes sure his Mom gets to work on time and doesn’t swear too much in front of her kids. His genius can be a tad grating but I found it mostly employed for coy laughs and nice moments with the family.
The Carpenter’s live next door to the Sickleman family – well kind of. Christina (Maddie Ziegler) is Henry’s age and often hitches a ride to school with them. She lives with her stepfather Glenn (Dean Norris) – the Chief of Police and general run-of-the-mill asshole. It doesn’t take Henry long to realize that not all is well at the neighbors. So he takes extraordinary steps to expose Glenn for abusing Christina and bring him down once and for all.
There is a major twist in the middle of The Book of Henry that dramatically changes the course of the film. It adds unnecessary complexity to the third act while tugging on the collective audience heart strings. It’s possible not to realize it in the moment – only for all the plot devices to come full circle as the end credits roll (as a pretty good new Stevie Nicks song plays over them.)
This is because Trevorrow’s shit show is masked largely by some great performances. Naomi Watts has never phoned in a single film and here truly commits and runs the gamut of emotions. Her Susan is put through the ringer and by the end you almost believe she could be holding a sniper rifle in the woods dressed like Ben Affleck in The Accountant (spoiler alert – this shit happens.) Jaeden Lieberher has been all over the place in his young career (St. Vincent, Midnight Special) and gives his all as Henry. Even little Jacob Tremblay is wonderful as Henry’s little brother Peter.
That said – it can’t be understated how Trevorrow and screenwriter Gregg Hurwitz stretch the boundaries of plausibility like two kids pulling on a piece of laffy taffy. At one point Henry’s genius is exposed through a series of voice recordings as he instructs his mother around town. We are meant to buy that he can not only anticipate every move his mother makes but also her reactions to his instructions – I can’t even… Alas, I want to spoil more but there is an odd joy (or shock) in seeing just how poorly this all comes together – just maybe wait until cable.
The Book of Henry is competent enough before it spectacularly implodes which makes me wonder about Trevorrow’s next project – Star Wars: Episode IX. I have a hunch Disney bet on him correctly, especially after his Jurassic World became – for a brief moment – the highest grossing film of all time. But I do know this – there will be much hand wringing after The Last Jedi is released because The Book of Henry is not the confidence boost that nerds were hoping for.