|Jaeden Lieberher stars as the title character in The Book of Henry family drama that segues, somewhat unsuccessfully, into a small-scale thriller.
The 11-year-old title character in The Book of Henry passes his mother a secret notebook filled with pictures and calculations describing an elaborate scheme to rescue their next-door neighbour from her sexually abusive stepfather. Those line drawings, sepia-coloured things that are one part Leonardo and two parts Professor Branestawm, are used in the opening credits in an exquisite piece of animation full of beguiling charm. If only the film delivered on that promise.
Part thriller, part sentimental drama, The Book of Henry is mainly a cute-kid movie for a grown-up audience – and it features not one but two of the darlings. First there's Henry himself (Jaeden Lieberher, affably earnest even in the film's most cloying moments). He's a pale and lanky grade-school genius with a playhouse full of improbable inventions and a head full of adult wisdom. Then there's his adorable little brother, Peter: The scrappy younger sibling struggling to keep up is played by Jacob Tremblay of Room, proving equally irresistible in a much easier part.
The wise and brilliant Henry protects Peter from schoolyard bullies and his single mom from economic hardship: he is making enough money investing in the markets that Susan could quit waiting tables if she wanted. But instead she sticks with her job at the diner – Naomi Watts makes the most of stilted dialogue to create a good-hearted but struggling single mom – because The Book of Henry is big on whimsy.
This kooky but happy trio lives in a pleasantly cluttered clapboard house in an improbably genteel small town in upstate New York where there's only one school and groceries are still packed in paper bags. In a forest of a backyard, the boys run through the autumn leaves to the playhouse where Henry works on various Rube Goldberg machines, including a contraption that can ice a cupcake. But for novelist-turned-screenwriter Gregg Hurwitz, the oddball pastoral is just the set-up: Henry is convinced that his classmate and neighbour Christina is being abused by her stepfather, but he can't get any adult to pay attention because the man is the local police commissioner.
This story soon turns excessively maudlin and Susan is left trying to carry out the outlandish scheme in the notebook as director Colin Trevorrow manages to shift the movie from family drama to small-scale thriller. But the blackly comic appeal of Henry's grand plan is never quite sweet enough to ice over an improbable plot in which three deeply troubled children all behave in ways that adults just happen to find adorable.
Indeed, as Tremblay's Peter starts to whimper gently at the prospect of an impending tragedy in a way that makes every adult in the audience want to wrap him in a hug, I began to wonder if Hurwitz and Trevorrow had ever met any children. A real kid facing these particular circumstances would have been playing with his cars in a state of complete avoidance – or lying on the floor screaming and pounding his fists.
This sentimentality becomes particularly unsettling in the case of the abused Christina – Maddie Ziegler is saddled with the role of the angelic victim – who barely utters a word for most of the film.
Yes, sexual abuse is often a dark family secret that keeps its traumatized victims silent for years, but this movie is the unusual case where you might actually like to see a little more teaching and preaching from a social drama: the utterly passive Christina needs to seek help and the obvious way to encourage her is not through heroics and melodrama, but with the conversation and friendship that the likeable Susan seems ideally placed to offer from the start. Oh, well, there's always the cupcake-icing machine.
“The Book of Henry” tugs on your heartstrings like a cable technician yanking a stubborn wire through a wall. Accordingly, it is completely insane. The plot proceeds from the charming to the manipulative to the shameless to the demented in gentle steps that may lull some audiences the way a frog can be boiled to death by degrees. Others may watch this movie through their fingers, suspended in the delight that can attend a truly wrongheaded movie.
Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) is the Magic Child, an 11-year-old genius who lives with his single mom, Susan (Naomi Watts), and little brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay, the kid from “Room”) in upstate New York. Mom’s a diner waitress and an overgrown child; Henry manages the family finances by day trading, at which he is a pint-size Michael Bloomberg. The family lives in a ramshackle mansion that has been scrupulously art-directed to appear casual and creative.
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“The Book of Henry” begins to edge toward the asylum when Henry discovers that Christina (Maddie Ziegler), a classmate who lives next door, may be being sexually abused by her stepfather (Dean Norris), who’s the town police chief. Unable to help the girl through official channels, Henry starts concocting a plan.
That’s when something terrible happens that I can’t spoil. Suffice to say that at this point “The Book of Henry” gathers itself in, pauses, and takes a long, considered swan dive into an empty pool.
The mission of murderous mercy becomes Susan’s, but, thankfully, she has Henry to guide her via a tape recording that lays out everything she needs to do, including how to buy a rifle, bullets, and a high-powered spotting scope from a shifty local gun shop. Susan talks back to the tape recording and Henry seems to “answer” her — that’s how smart this kid is! The movie dances along the edge of incredulity and bad taste before pulling back from the abyss in a way that feels even more mawkish and calculated. It’s the kind of movie where a school administrator (Tonya Pinkins) finally gets incontrovertible proof of Christina’s molestation by watching her dance.
The actors are good, especially the younger ones. Lieberher was the Magic Child in the much better “Midnight Special,” and he has a face somewhere between an old soul and an old shoe. As he did in “Room,” Tremblay conveys pluck and vulnerability with the naturalness of an actual kid. Watts beats upstream against the story’s implausibilities, but poor Sarah Silverman is stuck in the underwritten role of Mom’s Floozy Pal and Lee Pace grins manfully through his scenes as the handsome, caring neurosurgeon who the movie keeps pulling out of the wings hoping that Watts’s character will notice him.
You can blame a screenplay, by the best-selling crime novelist Gregg Hurwitz, that leans much too heavily on coincidence and contrivances, or you can blame the direction by Colin Trevorrow that lacks the fluky charm of his indie breakthrough “Safety Not Guaranteed” (2012) while embracing the plastic commercialism of his “Jurassic World” (2015).
Me, I blame the Magic Child. If he’s so smart, what’s he doing in a movie like this?
Directed by Colin Trevorrow. Written by Gregg Hurwitz. Starring Naomi Watts, Jaeden Lieberher, Jacob Tremblay. At Boston Common, West Newton, suburbs. 105 minutes. PG-13 (thematic elements, brief strong language).
How is Christina abused in The Book of Henry?
The nature of Christina's abuse is never explicitly stated or shown, but it's obvious in context that Glen's sexually abusing his stepdaughter. From Henry's window, we see Christina in her room late at night, then turning toward the door when Glen (albeit an unseen Glen) enters the room.
What happens to Cristina in The Book of Henry?
Henry sees Christina being abused by her stepfather, Glenn, the local police commissioner. Henry reports the abuse to social services and the school principal, Janice Wilder, but Glenn has connections throughout the local government, and Wilder is reluctant to challenge the commissioner without "conclusive evidence".
What was wrong with Henry in The Book of Henry?
After a violent seizure, he is taken to the hospital, where he is diagnosed with a brain tumor and undergoes surgery. Anticipating his death, he tells Peter to give Susan the notebook. Days later, Henry dies.
What is the dark secret in The Book of Henry?
The film, which is directed by Jurassic World's Colin Trevorrow, is full of aggressive whimsy—both Henry and Peter wear a series of oversized hats and goggles just because—but it has a dark secret at its center: Henry suspects that next door neighbor Glenn (Dean Norris), the police commissioner, is abusing his step- ...