‘The Book of Henry’ was probably meant to be good, but isn’t

by Abby Olcese on June 16, 2017

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Rock Fist Way Down] 

In his “Maltin on Movies” podcast, celebrated movie critic Leonard Maltin frequently reminds his listeners that nobody sets out to make a bad movie. I believe he’s right. Making a film is an expensive, time-consuming job whether you’re working for a studio or with friends in your backyard. Nobody goes into it hoping they’ll finish with a flaming pile of dog poo.

So what, then, to make of the undeniably hot, poo-scented mess The Book of Henry? It’s clear from its production values, cast and performances that this was a movie which was meant to be good. Yet the movie itself is all over the shop, unsure of who its real audience is. With a plot far too dark for kids, and an approach that’s often too mild to satisfy adults, the result is a film as uneven as the Rocky Mountain foothills.

In the movie, 11-year-old boy genius Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) lives in a perpetually autumnal small town with his little brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay) and his mom, Susan (Naomi Watts). Henry is convinced the girl next door, Christina (erstwhile Sia dance partner Maddie Ziegler), is being abused by her stepdad (Dean Norris), the town’s police commissioner. When conventional methods of solving the problem fail, Henry resorts to his own elaborate, bizarrely violent plan, enlisting his mother to carry out a hit on their neighbor to save Christina.

To be fair, despite an utterly bananas script, everyone in the cast puts forth a good performance. Watts, in particular, tries her damndest to make Susan a well-rounded character. Director Colin Trevorrow also gets a lot of mileage from his pint-sized stars, particularly Tremblay, whose cuteness he exploits (that kid’s tears are so powerful they could probably be used as currency in some countries).

The folks in front of and behind the camera make the best of the material. But man, oh man, what material. Gregg Hurwitz’s script consists of whimsy and preciousness followed by left-field wallops of drama that make no sense, and leave a bushel of unanswered questions behind.

It’s also a pretty sexist piece of work. None of the women in the film can function without a man. Susan can’t be an adult without Henry (who is not even a man, but an 11-year-old kid) telling her what to do. Her single friend Sheila (Sarah Silverman) is an alcoholic whose lifestyle has her living on the poor side of town. Even the school principal can’t seem to perform the basic functions of her job.

With a groundwork this messy, some directors might choose to go over the top into campy, midnight movie territory. But Trevorrow can’t even do that, apparently beholden to some strange belief in the film’s family-friendly elements. The Book of Henry contains an assassination attempt and child abuse, among other, more spoiler-y elements that absolutely put it into adult territory. But in its most violent moments, Trevorrow cuts away so quickly that we never see the result–not one drop of blood, not even a bruise.

While The Book of Henry is a bad movie, it’s not for lack of trying. It looks good, and the cast tries their hardest to sell the wackadoo plot. The filmmakers, true to Leonard Maltin’s word, didn’t set out to make a bad film. Yet despite the best efforts of everyone involved, their attempts fall far short of the goal.

Abby is a contributor to Scene-Stealers and also writes at her own blog, No More Popcorn. Follow her at:

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