The Boy Who Knew Too Much: Missteps aside, "Book of Henry" earnest and more ambitious than any run-of-the-mill fare

The Book of Henry (2017)
105 min., rated PG-13. 

There is something atypical but earnest and uncynical about “The Book of Henry” that one can see why director Colin Trevorrow (who cut his teeth on small 2012 indie “Safety Not Guaranteed”) returned to making this passion project after making $150-million tentpole sequel “Jurassic World.” Even the first draft of this original screenplay by crime novelist-turned-screenwriter Gregg Hurwitz (TV’s “V”) was apparently written twenty years ago, so it’s a story that has been dying to be told. Up front, “The Book of Henry” is not a safe choice for mainstream entertainment, dealing with uncomfortable issues (child abuse, death, and premeditated murder, to name a few) that more run-of-the-mill fare wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole, but it is certainly an ambitious gamble and works as a fable that asks a lot from its audience. Even so, the performances meet the viewer’s suspension of disbelief more than halfway.

11-year-old Henry Carpenter (Jaeden Lieberher) is gifted and brilliant beyond his years. He is still very much a child but has taken on the financial onus for his divorced single mother, Susan (Naomi Watts), who works as a diner waitress to raise Henry and his 8-year-old brother, Peter (Jacob Tremblay), in upstate New York. Henry also has an eye out to protect those who can’t always do it themselves, not only Peter from a bully at school but girl-next-door Christina (Maggie Ziegler), who may or may not be suffering abuse at home from police-commissioner stepfather Glenn Sickleman (Dean Norris). Once Susan discovers a book by Henry with an elaborate machination that will change everyone’s lives, she must learn to be the independent adult again.

That coy plot summary does not do justice to the chances “The Book of Henry” takes. With similarities to 1993’s “Jack the Bear,” the film does not take a conventional or foreseeable path whatsoever. Seguing from an adorably leafy small-town family story, to a boy-genius detective yarn a la “Rear Window,” to a family grief drama, to an assassination thriller, this film walks a tonal tightrope throughout with director Colin Trevorrow’s delicate touch. Whether it succeeds or not in those chances fully depends on the audience choosing to either go with the drastic shifts in tone and genre or not, and if one does, it is largely due to the performances that never fail to ring true. 

If one never thought he or she would ever see a film in which characteristically risk-taking actress Naomi Watts looks behind the scope of a sniper rifle, it happens here. However, even before that in the early scenes between Susan and her two boys, Watts gives a free-spirited portrayal of a single mom who would rather play first-person shooter video games than open a bill. Through her sheer talent and grace, Naomi Watts makes it all work, her character at least acknowledging the insanity of the situation she later finds herself in, and allows Susan’s decisions, actions, and arc to feel more believable than not. Jaeden Lieberher (2014's "St. Vincent") has such wonderful instincts about him that he still makes the hyper-precocious Henry likable and sympathetic rather than just a writer's constructed collection of quirks, as does the assured Jacob Tremblay (2014’s “Room”), and both wunderkinds share several moving moments with Watts. Sia music video dancer Maddie Ziegler is saddled with the colorless girl-next-door role, although she expresses withdrawn melancholy just fine as Christina, and her key moment at the school’s talent show where Ziegler actually displays her bread and butter on stage is heart-tugging if totally manipulative. Also, Sarah Silverman makes her scenes count as Susan’s brassy best friend and co-worker Sheila, and Lee Pace exudes compassion without overplaying it as a doctor who takes a warm, non-creepy interest in Susan and her family.

“The Book of Henry” is bound to put off—or even gaslight—audiences expecting a heartwarming family film the whole way through and/or to be seen as misguided or even recklessly irresponsible, and yet in its ever-changing narrative trajectory, it does have a little of everything to appeal to everyone. On paper, leaps in plausibility and far-fetched plot contrivances should prevent the film from working at all and completely fly it off the rails into disaster, but much like Henry’s own Rube Goldberg-like contraptions in his treehouse, one might get taken in to see how all of the pieces come together. And, for the most part, they do. Alternately naïve and wise, messy and pat, “The Book of Henry” has missteps along the way, but it’s definitely worth a single look and not deserving of all the critical vitriol it faced—many unfairly deemed it as a WTF experience and lumped it into the same boat as the equally more confounding “Winter’s Tale” and “Collateral Beauty”—at the time of its theatrical release. Henry would probably handle that negativity with smarts and grace.

Grade: C +