Going into The Book of Henry, I really didn’t know what to expect. First of all, Colin Trevorrow is a director who’s only put out two films, the first of which was the indie flick Safety Not Guaranteed, and the second of which was Jurassic World, the fourth highest grossing film of all time. While both were solid films, many have come out and expressed their discontent over what Jurassic World ultimately was: a shallow, fun action film with dinosaurs killing people. The big question going into this if Jurassic World was Trevorrow adapting to the project, or if it was an indication that his nuance as a storyteller was getting phased out in favor of more typical blockbuster fare.
The second reason I wasn’t sure what to expect with this movie was because of the trailer. Simply put, it was a bit of a confusing trailer. In the first half, it looked almost like a retread of the recent Chris Evans film, Gifted, which followed another child prodigy. Then, halfway through, it was revealed that the film was actually more of a thriller, which was unexpected given the lighthearted drama intro. Would a film that was trying to juggle these two things actually manage to keep them in the air?
Surprisingly enough, it did so with flying colors, and in addition to tackling both the lighthearted drama and thriller aspects, it also managed to do a lot more than I signed on for when I stepped into the theater.
The Book of Henry follows Henry Carpenter, who lives with his mother Susan and his brother Peter. Life isn’t completely perfect, but it’s not too far from it. Susan may be a bit on the lax side of things as a parent -- as she’s learned to rely heavily on Henry and his ability to both take care of Peter and handle their finances -- but she's far from a bad mother. However, while their lives may be comfortable, Henry has long harbored a suspicion that their next door neighbor, Christina, is being abused by her stepfather Glenn (who’s also the local police commissioner), played by Dean Norris. After going to the principal, calling child protective services, and pretty much hitting every dead end, Henry puts together a plan in a notebook to put an end to the abuse for good.
As you can see from the premise alone, this film seems to be at odds with itself as what it wants to be, but to be honest, Trevorrow and screenwriter Greg Hurwitz do an amazing job of making work. While that thriller angle of the story comes across as out of nowhere in the trailer, in the film, it’s planted early on and weaved throughout, so as not to feel completely out of left field by the time it’s relevant. Perhaps most impressively, the film manages to accomplish a hell of a lot more than even the trailers reveal. While it's a compelling plot, it's also an exceptional character piece.
This is most evident in the mother Susan, portrayed by the amazing Naomi Watts. While she's a good mother (some may even say a "cool" mom), she’s also very clearly painted as an immature one. She very much had kids before she was ready, but thanks to Henry’s exceptional intelligence, has been able to sort of coast through motherhood on his strengths. Though throughout the course of the flick, Susan learns that while Henry is amazing, he is still very much a child with a black-and-white perception of life. He's smart, but he's still fallible, and as the mother, she needs to learn to rely much less on him, and more on her own knowledge and instincts.
The script in this film, written by novelist Greg Hurwitz, is quite the solid piece. As you likely have seen from the trailers, this is a film that could very easily have fallen into terrible, cheesy clichés. While the film definitely flirts with those very ideas — oftentimes skirting a bit too close to comfort — it has enough twists, turns, and unexpected heartfelt drama to narrowly avoid them and really bring the film to great heights. Trust me, this movie has a lot of great surprises up its sleeves that both add to its unpredictability and to its depth as a character piece.
We can’t talk about this film without mentioning the amazing young stars. Henry is played by Jaeden Liberher, who most perhaps know from last year’s Midnight Special. Without a doubt, he plays a convincing prodigy. He’s a smartass, though one who’s socially aware enough to read people — a very rare combination. Playing his brother Peter is Jacob Tremblay, who set the world on fire with his performance alongside Brie Larson in Room. Tremblay is equally as captivating in this role, and while Henry may be the brains of this duo, he is without a doubt the heart. Bringing in more measured performance is Maddie Ziegler, who plays Christina, the abused neighbor. She doesn’t have a lot to say in the film, but she really doesn’t have to speak to be impactful. It’s hard to tell if the strength here lies in her skill as an actress, or Trevorrow’s direction (it's probably a healthy mix of both), but they did a great job at having her come across as abused without going overboard into cheesy-land, which was a real possibility.
All in all, I can’t really find a lot to fault in this film. Were I a more cynical viewer, I may find issue with sort of the “perfect” life this family lives, but the whole point of this film has to do with them growing past this happy stagnation of sorts, and by the end of the film’s runtime, any problems I had were either addressed or rendered insignificant by all its other strengths. It’s a film that’s driven by emotion, and by the end, I was so swept up with it all that I found that any real issues I had were ultimately minor and shallow.
To those who saw Jurassic World as an indication that Trevorrow’s skill as a storyteller were limited, I urge to check out The Book of Henry. It's more in the vein of Safety Not Guaranteed, but has a much steadier hand that one would expect from a more experienced director. It may very well be Trevorrow's strongest film to date, and it could help boost your confidence of what the filmmaker is capable of before going into Star Wars Episode 9.
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