Review: The Book of Henry is the Boldest and Riskiest Film of 2017.
The Book of Henry is the latest film from director Colin Trevorrow. As someone who is a huge fan of Safety Not Guaranteed, I was super excited to see Trevorrow direct a film that wasn’t as mainstream and The Book of Henry is far from your typical mainstream movie. The film follows Susan (Naomi Watts), a single mother that works at a local diner. Susan is your average mom who is struggling to keep her life in order while raising two children. Luckily for Susan, her oldest son Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) is a child prodigy and because of his intelligence has made himself the man of the house. Henry helps his mom figure out the finances and is extremely knowledgeable about the world around him. Henry’s little brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay) is your typical eight-year-old but Henry looks after him to make sure nothing happens to him. The story gets interesting when Henry discovers that the next door neighbor, Glenn Sickleman (Dean Norris) might be abusing his stepdaughter Christina (Maddie Ziegler). As Henry notices Christina acting strangely in school, he begins to investigate what exactly is happening next door.
I was pretty much blown away as I walked out my screening for The Book of Henry. While I would never say that the film is flawless because it does have plenty of them, I do, however, believe that this is one of the most daring and ambitious films to come out of a major studio in years. Without giving too much away, the film tackles very dark subjects but manages to do so in a very inventive and touching way. The entire first half of the film is radically different from the second half. While I don’t think it is overly jarring, I do believe this is the type of film that critics and audiences will struggle with. With that being said, I do believe that this is the type of film we need more of in Hollywood. I like that the film takes what seems like a wholesome children’s story and twists it into something so dark and serious.
It is hard to discuss a lot of what occurs in The Book of Henry without giving away a good portion of the plot. I don’t want to talk about what happens because it is very unexpected and pushing the story forward. In a lot of ways, I am sort of shocked that the trailers didn’t ruin this surprise since it is the crutch of the film. The series of events that I am referring to happen about midway through the film and after they occur, there is a shift in tone. The first half of the film is much more light-hearted. You watch Henry figure out the accounting software while Susan plays video games. It’s a cute role reversal and it works to showcase how intelligent Henry is without shoving that message down the audience’s throat. The second half is much dark but yet poignant. It’s all about Susan’s character and how she must grow as a mother and person while learning about Henry’s plan.
Gregg Hurwitz crafts a story that is very hard to bring to life. I think this is an odd little tale but one that sets out to do something different. It may not work for everyone but it worked for me. I appreciated the simple fact that the story doesn’t try to follow a typical formula. It comes off as an original concept that is very different from anything I have seen before. This isn’t just another child prodigy tale like Gifted from earlier this year. The film is rather lighthearted while also tackling serious subject matters such as child abuse and being a single mother.
Naomi Watts does such an amazing job playing Henry and Peter’s flawed yet lovable mother Susan. I love the relationship that Watts was able to create with Tremblay and Lieberher. There is a scene where Susan she puts Henry and Peter to bed and asks them “night light on or off? Door open or closed?” The scene works so incredibly well because it feels like such an authentic mom moment. The character of Susan is someone that I think a lot of parents will be able to relate to because she is far from perfect but is definitely has good intentions. Watt’s performance is multi-layered as there is a lot going on with her character as the film progresses. Watts handles it all with such ease and is never too dramatic but instead plays the part perfectly.
Jacob Tremblay does his thing and is great as the cute younger brother. Tremblay shares some great moments with both Watts and Lieberher. There is one scene involving ice cream that was such a sweet and emotional moment. Tremblay as a child actor has such a dynamic on-screen presence. I am usually someone who is anti-child actors but Tremblay is just so charming and cute that you can’t help but be engaged every time he comes on-screen. This was a good role for him too because while the story doesn’t rely on him as much as it did in ROOM, I still think there is a good balance of cute moments and emotional moments where he can show off his talent.
While Watts and Tremblay deliver great performances, it is Jaeden Lieberher who steals the show. I remember seeing Lieberher in Saint Vincent and thinking, “this kid is going to become a star.” Sure enough, a few years later, Lieberher has starred in Midnight Special and The Book of Henry. In all three films, Lieberher has stolen the spotlight from his adult co-stars. In this role, Lieberher becomes a child prodigy. There is nothing about his performance that doesn’t feel genuine or true to life. Lieberher’s Henry doesn’t gloat about being smarter than those around him but rather casually showcases his intelligence. The story and film rely on Lieberher’s performance and he knocks it out of the park.
Trevorrow does an incredible job of building and telling Hurwitz’s story. He makes great use of foreshadowing which is handling in such a way that was effective yet not overbearing. He also really knows how to capture the emotional moments which occur throughout the film. There are so many scenes that hit hard emotionally but never once did any of them feel forced or sappy. It felt to me that Trevorrow really connected with this story and wanted to bring this tale to life. He was also very good at blending multiple genres together in one film.
As mentioned earlier, the film does have some flaws. Some may argue that the tone of the film is all over the place but that didn’t bother me. I appreciated the shifts in tone because I felt like they fit the events that were happening on-screen. I did, however, feel that certain moments here and there were somewhat awkward and strange. One scene, in particular, is an odd little scene that takes place between Shiela and Henry and they share a kiss. This scene came out of nowhere and just made me feel uncomfortable. The awkward moments didn’t happen much but there were a few of them here and there.
My biggest issues, however, stem from the film’s secondary characters. While there are quite of few characters that I felt weren’t handled very gracefully, the ones that stood out the most are Lee Pace, Sarah Silverman, and Dean Norris. Pace plays a doctor and he is easily the most handsome doctor since McDreamy from Grey’s Anatomy. I am not saying that handsome men can’t be doctors but the script decides to turn his character into something more than just a hunky doctor. I didn’t feel like this needed to happen and it served more as a distraction than an effective love story for Susan’s character.
As much as I love Sarah Silverman as a comedian and as a dramatic actress, she is a total miscast here. I didn’t like the character of Sheila at all. The character felt very out of place and Silverman’s performance was a weird mixture of serious and comedic which didn’t work. I couldn’t even comprehend why Susan would hang out with someone like Sheila. They seemed like total opposites and didn’t have any chemistry. Sadly, I think this character was just poorly written and as a result felt completely out of place.
Dean Norris, who is best known for playing Hank Schrader on Breaking Bad, is also not very good in the film. He is probably the film’s weakest link since the story revolves around his character. Norris’ performance is extremely one note and comes off as very wooden. I liked Norris on Breaking Bad but whenever I tend to see him in various roles, I feel like he is playing the same character over and over again. I would like to believe that he just needs better material to help define his performance but that is also missing here. His character Glenn doesn’t get much development or anything at all for that matter. We as audience members are lead to believe that he is up to no good. While I don’t think the film needed to show him doing something wrong, I do think we needed to spend more time with the character to shape him. He just felt like a generic creepy guy next door.
All in all, The Book of Henry is the boldest and riskiest film of 2017. It is an incredibly ambitious film that blurs the lines of several different genres while asking big questions. I admire the risks that the film takes and loved that the story felt fresh and different. The film has three incredible performances including a tour-de-force performance by Jaeden Lieberher. The Book of Henry might not be for everyone but I am glad that a major Hollywood studio took the risk on this one. The Book of Henry left me thinking and that is something that I rarely get do when exiting the theater. Hollywood needs more films like this one. Films that aren’t afraid to take chances and challenge genre as well as audiences. I applaud this film and think it will stand out as one of the year’s most memorable films.
Scott “Movie Man” Menzel’s rating for The Book of Henry is a 8 out of 10.