The Book of Henry, only the third film from “indie” director wunderkind Colin Trevorrow, plays like a film adaptation of a best selling novel. There’s sudden shocking twists, richly drawn, if brazenly over-the-top, characters and a hurried pace that all coalesce to feel like the product of 300 pages of prose siphoned into a 100-page screenplay. Big, bold and unpredictable, Henry unfolds like a suburban Dan Brown novel; it’s pulpy and scrumptious while it lasts, brimming with sudden breakneck turns that veer the narrative into perpetual new territory, but won’t leave much of an imprint once you’ve slammed it shut.
I’ll stop right here to set the record straight: The Book of Henry is not an adaptation of any sort. There’s a sensation that the work is a watered down reflection of a popular page-turner; the shadow of some greater piece of the collective consciousness. But it’s not. The script from Gregg Hurwitz, whose credits are limited to a number of episodes of ABC’s short-lived sci-fi drama V and one penning stint on USA’s Queen of the South, is a gnarly venture; stuffed with flashy narrative pivots and stomach-churning button-pushing. Just when you think you have a sense of what kind of film Hurwitz and Treverrow have cooked up, they sucker punch their audience and flip the script, contorting it into some new form, injurious as it may be.
The result makes for fleet-footed entertainment, and the effervescent pacing of Henry is to be admired, but it’s easy to see Henry often lacks executional finesse, throwing the kitchen sink of tragedy at the screen without pausing to consider if all that darkness is really necessary, much less exploitative. As such, the plot hovers on the brink of being emotionally manipulative at critical moments and although Henry contains some powerful gut punches in terms of individual scenes – Henry’s last moment on screen is especially potent – once you’ve spilled your tearful penance, you might just chalk Trevorrow’s feature up as some kind of sinister weepy.
But there’s a genuine earnestness to Henry that makes its juggling a lighthearted spirit in with some jet black plot points somewhat magical to behold. Like a magician performing a trick that you already know, Henry’s blatant tissue box pandering will rile up your tear ducts even if you’re actively aware that it’s pulling cheap shots. That the tone remains steady throughout – uplifting with a side of utter desolation – is a testament to Trevorrow’s command behind the camera. This could easy have been a jarring venture, one filled with reckless tonal changes, but even when tragedy strikes, it remains remarkably consistent in voice. Even working off a script that could use another polish or two, Trevorrow hones in on an emotional through line and makes it work. Mostly.
Jaeden Lieberher (St. Vincent, Midnight Special) is the titular Henry, a child genius who, in some stroke of meta face-palming, actually prefers to be called “precocious”. He admonishes his mom for cursing, handles the family finances – earning them hundreds of thousands of dollars on the stock market like a Gentile Chas Tenenbaum – and has a better working knowledge of the functions and malfunctions of the human brain than most PhD residents. He chooses to attend public schools so as to better socialize himself, he reminds one flabbergasted teacher after an off-the-cuff existential riff on the assigned “My Legacy” project. Henry concludes that life is about the journey mannnnn, the people you meet, not the destination. Which, as Henry describes it, is six feet down in a hole. How psuedo-profound. For contrast, the classmate prior to Henry aspired to be a Olympian Kickball.
His teachers remain impressed even as Henry becomes the classroom equivalent of a flasher, peeling out his gargantuan medulla oblongata and waving it around in front of the class. To Henry, the world is one big intellectual-dick-contest and he’s wielding the biggest member in the room. Outside the classroom, a hard-drinking Sarah Silverman with a tig ole biddy tattoo spars regularly with Henry, trying to tame his raging ego after a few cocktails. She’s one of many characters who don’t receive a fulfilling servicing, even if she remains one of the most oddly intriguing additions to the stable. Perhaps it was just the mammary ink.
Thanks to a rather human performance from Lieberher, Henry does eventually register as “real boy”, even through his autistic/robotic tendencies. Were he performed with less piss and vinegar, he would be incredibly grating but Henry’s brainy capabilities are laser-focused, motivated by an abusive neighbor played by Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris. A diddler in the dark, Norris’ police chief captain Glenn Sickleman regularly assaults his visibly wounded step-daughter (Maggie Ziegler) but with his high social standing – and a baffling turn of the social injustice knife – no one has the balls to do anything about it. Save for Henry.
As the “Gears of War”-playing, red-wine slurping mama, Naomi Watts’ Susan is tasked with carrying out Henry’s plot when proves unable to do so. Henry’s ask? Exterminate the threat next door by any means necessary. To Henry, that means exactly what it sounds like. Buy a high-powered rifle (with bullets that literally disintegrate on impact) and shoot the dude. Far-fetched? Absolutely. But Susan is drawn as such a suggestible mind that she’ll do any and every thing Henry asks of her. America’s favorite lil squirt Jacob Tremblay (co-star of 2015’s Oscar-winning Room) is Susan’s younger son, Henry’s little brother, and the relationship established between them is some of the best material Henry’s got. Henry’s bizarro world relationship with his mother on the other hand – in which he is essential the parent, she the rebellious teen – seems strained at times, actively unrealistic in a world that otherwise tries so desperately to remain grounded and restrained. Or at least “dark and gritty”. It’s “realistic” in a DCEU kinda way and that’s already proven to not turn out so well.
Suffice it to say, Henry struggles balancing the two dragons; the poppy page-turned voraciously consumed by the YA crowd and the unrelenting bleak heartstring plucker. The Book of Henry wants to be both twee and hardcore. It’s mature in the sense that it grapples with big subject matters but even after all is said and done, it’s only a fraction of a dial off from a Disney version of a Grimms tale. A film version of the ice cream swirl. Henry asks us to accept its emotionally brutality while remaining hopeful, almost adolescently so, in tone. And in a world where bleakness bleeds through the canvas of life like dark ink, its ignorant optimism can, like a mother’s kiss goodnight, prove strangely reassuring, if not quite life-affirming.
CONCLUSION: Colin Trevorrow’s The Book of Henry is a tricksy page-turner, one that clubs you upside the head with eye-popping twists and heartrending turns at the expense of emotional earnestness. Fastidious children and soured adult characters content with weepy drama mixed with a rollicking revenge plot but Trevorrow balances it all into a well-rounded, evenly told story of bright-eyed perseverance in nasty circumstances even if he can’t wholly save the overblown melancholic plot from itself.