Some movies have been referred to as emotional rollercoasters. For “The Book of Henry,” I would describe it as an emotional Apollo mission, or in other words, a testament of every element coming together and pulling off something excellent.
Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) is a boy genius. Not only does he take care of the family’s finances, read science books for fun and impress teachers on a regular basis, he also look after his little brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay) – he’s the man of the house at age 11. The boys’ mother, Susan (Naomi Watts), works as a waitress and struggles to provide for them financially. One day, Henry finds out that their neighbor, Christina (Maddie Ziegler), is abused at the hands of her stepfather Glenn (Dean Norris). Being Henry’s secret crush and also his classmate, this discovery affects him deeply. He tries to act, but all attempts to bring Glenn to justice are doomed to fail, as he is the local police commissioner and his brother works for the CPS. Disillusioned from inactive institutions, he draws up a plan to stop Glenn and save Christina. When Susan finds out, she enters the central circle of a murderous plot and can’t help but to go along with it.
“The Book of Henry” masters what many movies struggle with: A perfect drama-comedy balance and seamless genre shifting. In its best moments, this is a perfect feel-good family movie, but things quickly turn lethally suspenseful, with an optimistic tone that is never kitsch. There is also an important message that is delivered without being preachy.
Gregg Hurwitz’s excellently balanced screenplay is already more than 20 years old, and I can see how it wasn’t easy to sell (this will become apparent upon viewing). Then Colin Trevorrow joined the project as the director. The producers really wanted the movie to be true to the script and kept its edginess – something that rarely happens nowadays in Hollywood. The movie almost got cancelled after Trevorrow got a gig reanimating dinosaurs in the “Jurassic World,” but then he returned. He masterly and patiently has the performers churn out precise notes, which is important since in someone else’s hands this movie might have been a complete wreck. When so many emotions come into play, things can easily get messy, where serious scenes create laughter and the funny scenes seem stilted. It takes an ensemble of dedicated players and a levelheaded director to carry out such high-precision-required performances.
Treverrow has found in Watts the perfect audience surrogate. Most of the time she doesn’t absorb Henry’s explanations about the stock market because she would rather go back to her PlayStation. The two-time Oscar-nominee gives another spellbinding performance in this movie. Together with Lieberher, who amazed in last year’s critical darling “Midnight Special” and Tremblay in his next big performance post-“Room,” they form a perfect little family.
On the other side of the fence, it’s much darker. Norris does a good job portraying a two-faced man valued by society but at the same time a serial pederast. Christina doesn’t say much, leaving her expressive eyes to carry her story. This makes Ziegler’s performance even more intense. Comedienne Sarah Silverman has a small supporting role as Susan’s friend Sheila, and she shows just in a few scenes what she is able to do. Without exception, everyone in the cast does an outstanding job.
But of all the good things this movie has to offer, the chemistry is what enlivens the movie. The casting director was able to bring the mother-son duo from “St. Vincent” back together. While most geniuses are portrayed as socially awkward, Henry seems to be everybody’s best friend, including adults and viewers. Anyone would like having a guy like Henry around. Everyone in this movie brilliantly portrays everyday characters. Nothing in this movie seems artificial, despite its happenings being far from normal.
This film is a perfect symbiosis of an intelligent and emotional script, an avid director and a passionate cast: an antidote for too many pirates and too many Autobots. It gets highly emotional, serious and it is not polished for success just like real life. While there is a focus on the brothers and their heartfelt relationship, “The Book of Henry” is not an outright family movie. Serious topics are dealt with here, without shyness, but thankfully there is no lecturing involved.
Though it conveys a positive message, it won’t be resolved with a happy ending, without giving too much away. Another apparent refreshing note is how the shot-callers are children and women. Male adults lose out. The only thing I could criticize is that sometimes the movie gets a little naïve, but that is needed to continue the story. “The Book of Henry” is an excellent blend of genres – comedy, drama, thriller and coming-of-age – with outstanding performances and a versatile director who can include big feelings in an indie-scale project. It’s a movie to make you laugh and cry, and it has value, almost as rare as an 11-year-old genius in a public school. It’s also probably the most surprising film since “The Sixth Sense,” so do yourself a favor and don’t watch the trailer, don’t read anything else about it. Just see it.
Overall Rating: 8/10
The Book of Henry (2017)
Directed by Colin Trevorrow
Written by Gregg Hurwitz
Cinematography by John Schwarzman
Produced by Sidney Kimmel, Jenette Kahn, Adam Richman
With Naomi Watts, Jaeden Lieberher, Jacob Tremblay, Maddie Ziegler, Dean Norris, Sarah Silverman
105 minutes, PG-13