With Colin Trevorrow tasked with taking over the helm of the Star Wars franchise, much of the focus on his latest endeavour The Book of Henry is on his directorial capabilities, as we all hope – and pray – he’s the right man for the job. Well if this film is an audition, he’ll be leaving the room with a “don’t call us – we’ll call you” line – as The Book of Henry is a mawkish, absurd, and nonfunctional piece of cinema.
Jaeden Lieberher plays Henry Carpenter, a precocious 11-year old who understands most people better than they understand themselves. His mother Susan (Naomi Watts) is aware of her son’s unique intellect and allows him a freedom to be exactly who he wants to be, which rubs off on his little brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay). Though after the three are put through a tough family tragedy, Susan decides to follow Henry’s instructions from his little red book – and unrelentingly pursue the next door neighbour Glenn Sickleman (Dean Norris), who Henry believed had been abusing his step-daughter Christina (Maddie Ziegler). Yet givenGlenn’s high rank in society, he seems to have gotten away scot-free – and this could be a tougher endeavour that initially envisaged.
You get the sense that we’re supposed to feel endeared to this whimsical family dynamic, yet there’s a smugness about Henry’s demeanour which is all rather off-putting. The character, though deliberately intended to be different (his teacher believes him to be ‘gifted’) still doesn’t converse or communicate as youngsters do, and it’s so patently clear that an adult (Gregg Hurwitz) has penned the screenplay. Of course it would be incredibly surprising had that not been the case, but a more accomplished writer would have captured the essence of an 11-year-old rather than just write an adult and then cast a child to play him.
The film takes a dark, completely unexpected turn about halfway through, and tonally Trevorrow struggles to go along with it. Ridiculous and absurd for the most part, where The Book of Henry fails spectacularly is within its distinct inability to detect such overstatement, with little to no degree of self-awareness whatsoever. Yet through this odd approach comes a film that, for all of its flaws – and believe me, there are many – remains somewhat beguiling, as you almost can’t quite believe a film of this nature was given the green light.