Okay… The Book of Henry.
I had been looking forward to this movie, the newest from JurassicWorld director Colin Trevorrow, since I saw the trailer. However, I then heard the tremendously negative reviews given to the film, and I was surprised. So after seeing the film, I understand why some people could hate this movie.
I, on the other hand, loved it.
The Book of Henry is one of the most original films that have come out this year and it dares to take risks in their storytelling that most films would shy away from. Some o those risks do not pay off, but I am here to tell you that I believe most of them do.
The film has a ton of outstanding performances as well. Naomi Watts does a brilliant job as Susan, the mother of two young boys. Susan is unconventional as a parent, spending more time playing video games and goofing off than being your typical single parent. The reason she can afford to do this is her oldest son, 11-year old Henry (Jaeden Lieberher, from Midnight Special and St. Vincent) is a genius, wise beyond his years and has been able to stash away quite a nest egg for the family through playing the stock market. The other son Peter is played by Jacob Tremblay (from Room) and he is once again showing that he is an amazing powerhouse actor, as well as being the personification of cuteness.
Now, I do not think I can continue talking about this movie without going into the main story points and so, from this point on, this review will be going spoilers. Be warned, if you want to go in this movie without the knowledge, you need to skip the rest of the review or come back after you’ve seen it because the trailers do not do a good job of showing you what kind of a movie this is.
Okay, you’ve been warned.
As the movie progresses, we meet the neighbor girl Christina (Maddie Ziegler), who is shown to have a good relationship with Henry and his mom. What Henry does not say is that he has been trying to get people to investigate Christina’s step-father, the Police Commissioner Glenn Sickleman, for child abuse. The movie does not go into detail about the abuse, but it does imply that the abuse is of the molestation angle. Henry goes to the principal of the school, he tries to call social services, but the highly connected Sickleman avoids the suspicion. After failing with all of the normal attempts to get help for Christina, Henry comes to the decision that there is only one way to help her.
At this point, the film does not tell us specifically what Henry is thinking, but you can infer it by the boy’s actions. He is plotting to kill Sickleman.
However, this is interrupted. We had seen Henry have several headaches as the first act of the film moved along. I actually thought to myself, “Uh oh,” when he sat up to take the aspirin in the night. Henry has a seizure and winds up in the hospital, needing emergency brain surgery. Unfortunately, the surgery is unable to remove the full tumor, and Henry winds up dying.
Yup. This, I am certain, is one of the main parts of the film that has caused people to hate on The Book of Henry so much. The death of Henry brings about a severe tonal shift in the film, from what seemed like a really smart kid coming of age story, to a much darker, child cancer death story. Plus, it happened really fast. The whole hospital sequence was about 10-15 minutes of screen time.
It was also uncomfortable because we saw Henry taking care of details, arranging the stocks and the money, so his mother would be okay. He also spoke to his brother, in a very powerful scene, where he told him to make sure that their mom got his red journal.
This was the next shift in the movie, as inside the red journal was all of the observations and attempts Henry had made to try and help Christina. There were also detailed instructions in the journal on how Susan could assassinate Sickleman.
Susan went through all of the other attempts again, but she eventually came to the same conclusion that Henry had… that killing him was the only way.
The third act of the movie was Susan preparing for, by following Henry’s directions (which included a tape in his own voice) the murder of the Police Commissioner.
Usually shifts in tone are problems for me in a movie, but this one was purposely done and I think it works very well. You have three distinct acts of The Book of Henry and each one has a tone of its own, growing darker with each scene.
Some might claim that the story became crazy and unbelievable at this point, and I can see that argument, because it is definitely something that we haven’t seen before. However, if you look at the character of Susan, I believe everything makes perfect sense. Susan is shown as a woman who needs Henry’s opinion/guidance about just about every aspect of her life. She is like the child in the relationship, even going as far as acting out by playing video games and getting drunk with her friend (Sarah Silverman). He boys still know they are loved, and Susan is shown as a caring, compassionate and loving mother, just not a responsible one. She needed to have Henry’s input…she even questioned herself about signing the permission for the doctors to do the emergency brain surgery as she wanted to “talk to Henry about it.” So, in her hour of grief after Henry’s death, his instructions arrive and she just goes about doing it because that is how their relationship always went.
Dean Norris (from Breaking bad) played Glenn Sickleman and he is great at being the slimy, beneath the surface scum who was abusing his step daughter. There was even a scene where I thought the movie was implying that he had killed her mother/his wife. Norris does an outstanding job of giving those clues without having to say it through dialogue.
In the end, Susan chooses not to shoot Glenn because she realized that Henry was just a kid and, despite his brilliance, this was not the way to go. This is one of the reasons why I believe that this movie was not about Henry, but instead was squarely about Susan. She was the one who learned something about herself, finding change. Now, the manner in which she comes to this revelation is a bit ham-fisted and not as subtle as most of this movie had been. The third act with the set up of the assassination attempt was the weakest of the film, but the ending does prove to be satisfying for the audience. The ending was very much like a literal Rube Goldberg machines that we had seen Henry working on. Probably the biggest issue with the ending is how perfectly everything gets tied up in a little bow, including how Susan is able to adopt Christina (by forging adoption papers— thanks Henry).
Looking at the reviews, I see all kinds of divisiveness among the reviewers. Complaints about shifting tone, plausibility, and manipulative are scattered throughout. I understand all of these complaints and I can even see where they are coming from, but I respectfully disagree. The Book of Henry was fully engaging and entertaining, tugged at the heart-strings and was filled with tremendous performances by a talented cast, in particular its child actors. I have not mentioned Maddie Ziegler yet. She does not have much in way of dialogue, but she emotes such feelings and pain through her expressions and body language that she does not need words to tell us what is happening to her character. Her dance at the talent show, which convinces the principal to finally do something, is a beautifully executed scene. I have seen and heard some critics making fun of this scene and I am unsure why they are. They made it sound as if the dance magically convinced the principal of the abuse, and there is some of that, but I choose to look at it as if the principal always knew the truth. Henry had told her several times, but the dance brought her to a point where she could not deny what she was seeing before her eyes any longer.
The whole tape with instructions bit was kind of off-putting. It was very much like 13 Reasons Why (from Netflix). The voice of Henry served as an internal narrator for Susan, and some times the tape would say something that Henry couldn’t have known about when he was actually recording the tape. For me, I explained this away by thinking that the tape itself was more of what Susan was hearing inside her grieving head. I believe that we did not hear the tape as it specifically was. We heard it through the POV of the unreliable narrator of Susan.
Jaeden Lieberher is magnificent as this genius boy, who is more of an adult, but who can still approach circumstances in childish manners. The decision to plot a murder is an emotional response to not knowing what to do next, and it might be something that a child would come up with. Lieberher is wonderful here and his chemistry with Naomi Watts is off the charts. His connection with Jacob Tremblay is like that of real brothers. And Tremblay is such a special actor. Tears came to my eyes when Jacob said to his mother that he had wished he was the one who died, because people would be less sad if Henry had not died. The pain was real and gripped at him. It was a great scene.
There might be some pacing issues with The Book of Henry as the story does plow through some time frame quickly, and I can understand why some may not like what happened, but it was a wonderful experience being surprised in a film. When Henry got sick, I did see that coming from the headaches, but I thought maybe that his death might be at the end of the film, not ten minutes later. Though it was a sad loss, I marvel at the bravery of the narrative to try to do it. This is an uncommon film and that is a joy because Hollywood tends to send us cookie-cutter movies. I appreciate something that goes against the grain and tries something different. The Book of Henry is certainly that.