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The Book of Henry (2017) Review

Tear-jerker drama sees a mother finish what her son started.

The Book of Henry is a 2017 crime/drama about a single mother who sets out to rescue a young girl from the hands of her abusive stepfather using instructions from her genius son’s carefully crafted notebook.

To many, it might seem a step in an odd direction to go from a huge blockbuster like Jurassic World to a small drama, but director Colin Trevorrow has been here before and proven he’s got a real knack for the genre. Safety Not Guaranteed is a gem of an example, his feature length debut and reveals his talent for small character development and clever storytelling. Now he’s at it again in a drama that is certainly compelling if not highly purposeful, pulling on every string it can muster in another child genius movie.

Susan (Naomi Watts) is a single mom taking care of two boys, her youngest Peter (Jacob Tremblay), a nebbish sort of kid who gets picked on, and Henry (Jaeden Lieberher), his eleven-year-old brother, the protector and genius who is so smart, he takes care of just about everything in the family, making all the decisions and choices for Susan, including money and more. He’s incredibly diligent, creative, and thoughtful, caring for Peter as well as Susan, who struggles as a waitress to keep the family together. What keeps Henry most occupied these days though is their neighbor Christina (Maddie Ziegler), a fellow classmate hiding in her shell, abused by her stepfather, Glenn (Dean Norris), who is also the police commissioner. When no adults take him serious in his accusations, Henry begins a journal that details a plan to take some drastic action and when Susan gets hold of it, she’s drawn into the plot and must finish the work.

The Book of Henry is a film of broad strokes, nuance and subtlety pushed aside to fulfill the need for essentials only, that being very clearly defined characters, motives and actions. Henry is a figure of absolutes, living in a world more like something out of a children’s storybook, one laced with heavy-handed morals. While he talks and acts like a grown man, he constructs elaborate Rube-Goldberg-esque gadgets to entertain his brother and has a treehouse that looks like something elves in a steampunk fanfiction story built out of magic. He dabbles in whimsy and his relationship with Susan is one of opposites with her playing violent video games and him running the household as he scolds her for doing so. It’s all sort of fun and designed for pre-teen children to identify with but the decidedly dark subject matter makes it a little hard to work tonally.

The Book of Henry
The Book of Henry, 2017 © Double Nickel Entertainment

There are other issues that work against it as well, including a few loose ends, such as Susan’s best friend Sheila (Sarah Silverman), who is given a drinking problem but nothing else and is hardly in the film. The movie aggressively works to manipulate, from schoolyard bullies, to medical tragedies, to a forced love interest and admittedly, some of it is effective, mostly due to terrific performances. Lieberher, who was very good in last year’s Midnight Special, is convincing as a boy genius and Watts is once again truly affecting.

Unfortunately, while the moments between Susan and Henry are strong, the second half is left critically imbalanced as she is faced with taking on the plot against Glenn. The problem is, both Glenn and Christina are wholly undeveloped, and while we certainly don’t need the abuse to be seen, there is little in the way of feeling any urgency. The movie is more resigned to the growth of Susan and the film relies on some incredulous gimmicks to see it to the end, including a tropey recording. The Book of Henry is a string of carefully-designed moments that never feels authentic and while the premise might be compelling, the film never is.

The Book of Henry (2017) Review

Movie description: The Book of Henry is a 2017 crime/drama about a single mother who sets out to rescue a young girl from the hands of her abusive stepfather using instructions from her genius son's carefully crafted notebook.

Director(s): Colin Trevorrow

Actor(s): Naomi Watts, Jaeden Lieberher, Jacob Tremblay

Genre: Drama

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