By Joe Hammerschmidt
With any film, there comes a basic description. Most of the time, I tend to forego the warnings said descriptions will often warrant, and only once in a blue moon will I have said to myself “I should’ve paid closer attention.” On the surface, Colin Trevorrow’s “The Book of Henry” almost had me expecting a retro 80s adventure feel ala “Flight of the Navigator.” Instead we get a more heavily dramatic family tale closer to “Radio Flyer.” Trevorrow, whose renaissance is left unaltered following his breakout debut in “Safety Not Guaranteed”, and his mainstream benchmark work in “Jurassic World”, aims to blend both an emotional life-loss drama with a bitterly cold revenge thriller, with the end result going in too many oddball directions at once, you’d wonder how it was kept from unravelling.
Trevorrow, working from a script by crime novelist Gregg Hurwitz, still tries to preface the pure darkness by opening his work directly with the drawings in Henry Carpenter’s (Jaeden Lieberher) elusive book, almost showing a false sense of satisfaction that what we’re experiencing is a tale of a gifted mind experiencing the daily hell of 6th grade, which starts off the action in a decent manner. With his equally intellectual younger bro Peter (Jacob Tremblay) and overworked mother Susan (Naomi Watts) in tow, their lives are almost perfect; even Henry’s fortunate enough with a secret crush over Christina (Maddie Ziegler), a same-grade neighbor living next door. Yet this is where the story begins to take its first rather awkward turn, for which Trevorrow fails to show enough prevalent evidence for, only skirting as little of the edge as possible to establish the center of motivation. As Henry’s curiosity evolves, he’s immediately attuned to the dark secrets one house down, in the strained relationship between Christina and stepdad Glen (Dean Norris), who just happens to be the police commissioner; yet another awkward turn.
As Henry continues to survey his research towards preventing Glen from laying another finger on the hairs of her stepdaughter, yet another random pinhair turn occurs, shifting the dynamic of the Carpenter household, where Susan is forced to take the steering wheel to guide Henry’s overly precise blueprints to eventually hold Glen accountable for his misdeeds, and in turn becoming the mature mother she knew she could be the whole time. This twist, one among many, is likely the least welcome in the whole film, yet the emotional brevity throughout is still purposeful enough in making Susan the right kind of heroine, one who actually stands for his kids, yet knows still when to back away in times of bad judgement.
Never was I anticipating Watts’ character to shine brightest; even through raising two kids, working a minimum wage job with a deniably alcoholic friend (Sarah Silverman, appearing as catty as ever), she’s the quickest to evolve from the kind of mom who seeks financial assistance from her ever-capable 12-year-old while playing a heavy round of Call of Duty, to a gun-toting mama bear who’ll fight for her kids as the odds stack against. Of course, the two young male leads, Lieberher (previously known for his supporting part opposite Bill Murray in “St. Vincent”) and Tremblay (still the effervescent youthful powerhouse from “Room”), are strong and self-sufficient. You can tell they’re still in the right movie, even if the working parts aren’t necessarily in the correct order. Yet another surprise inclusion would be Dr. Daniels (Lee Pace, who’ll always be the adorable piemaker on “Pushing Daisies”), who’s welcome enough given Henry’s eventual medical circumstances, yet honestly lends nothing else to the tale. As for Ziegler, her only truly purposeful moment is in her dance skills, as a ballet numbers plays while intercut with the film’s momentary climax. She contributes well, it’s just the rest of the scene that lacks truth in its motives.
I wanted so desperately to love this film, and for once, my expectations were quite on the upper mark after Trevorrow had captivated audiences with “Jurassic.” Unfortunately, they were not met in the slightest, and for the first time in a while, I may have been left wondering just what went wrong with the writing. While Watts and her “sons” deliver, and I grasped enough understanding with the shifting changes a family can take when confronted with an event unlike anything imaginable, and then trying to recover and continue on with the older genius kid’s work, there’s just not enough evidence proving this film actually tried to convey what it set out to accomplish, like I was significantly robbed of an experience which would’ve otherwise shown high reward. There’s a much better film to be found in here; maybe two littler films, if one is brave enough to rearrange the pieces to make more sense. But what is shown here will regrettably fade faster than deserved, for all its imperfections, you probably should still take a chance on it, if only for the performances alone. If one isn’t willing to make time for “The Book of Henry” while in theaters, plan to rent it on any streaming service and be prepared for a spot of confusion, and a heavy dose of dark emotional undertones which try to have a place, but yet go too far off-page. (C+)
“The Book of Henry” opens today at most area theaters, Tukwila and points north; rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language; 105 minutes