‘The Book of Henry’ takes you on a surprisingly beautiful journey (review)

“It can’t be left undone…we have to make it better…”

In a world where superheroes and aliens rule the box office, it’s often that a small yet powerful miracle of a film will emerge. Last year was the year of sleeper cinema, as incredible films such as Don’t Breathe, Lights Out, Hell or High Water and even The Shallows all made less than $100 million each. Yet reviewers and critics, alike, all raved about how surprised they were by how incredibly well done the films were. So in a sea of capes and UFO’s, it isn’t hard to find a film that shines bright. Such is the case with The Book of Henry.

The film tells the story of the single suburban mother Susan Carpenter (Naomi Watts) who works as a waitress at a diner, alongside feisty family friend Sheila (Sarah Silverman). Her younger son Peter (Jacob Tremblay) is a playful 8-year-old. Taking care of everyone and everything in his own unique way is Susan’s older son Henry (Jaeden Lieberher), age 11. Protector to his adoring younger brother and tireless supporter of his often self-doubting mother – and, through investments, of the family as a whole – Henry blazes through the days like a comet. Susan discovers that the family next door, which includes Henry’s kind classmate Christina (Maddie Ziegler), has a dangerous secret – and that Henry has devised a surprising plan to help. As his brainstormed rescue plan for Christina takes shape in thrilling ways, Susan finds herself at the center of it.

The film was directed by Colin Trevorrow, whose work include 2015’s Jurassic World and it’s upcoming sequel, as well as the upcoming ninth installment to the Star Wars saga. Trevorrow, the filmmaker who started creating short films when he was 12 years old, takes moviegoers on an emotional journey that is not like any other journey they’ve been on before. The Book of Henry creates cinematic congruence as the tale evolves into a cyclical story of not just a genius child, but of what it means to be a family. Trevorrow’s keen eyes allow for the perfect pacing of the film, and reveals the smallest of details at just the right time to create some of the most impactful scenes that we’ve seen on the silver screen this year.

But what is a director without his cast? No great film ever won accolades without a team of talented individuals to bring their characters to life. The Book of Henry carries no deadweight in terms of performances, and as each role is critical to the unity of the story, not one of the characters ever fall flat. Jaeden Lieberher is superb as Henry! Creating a sense of relatability that allows the viewer to connect with an 11-year old prodigy is a hard thing to do, but Lieberher achieves this effortlessly. Although his screen time is only half of the film, his impact on his family is still very prevalent. Even to the point of (SPOILER ALERT) his death, every scene that he has with a co-star is phenomenal, making you truly believe that Lieberher is a prodigy.

Naomi Watts is also outstanding in the film, as she emulates with ease what kind of journey many mothers may experience when you lose someone that you share life with. As you see her process grief and pain, as well as managing still being a mother to another son, you can’t help but grieve with her, and process with her. Her character is instructed by her late son on how to eliminate the step father who lives next door, and as she struggles with the decision, Henry is there- in the form of a tape recorder that he left for her- to convince her why she should. Her transparency as an actress shines remarkably through in the film, resulting in gripping scenes that snap her, as well as the viewer, back into the reality of the situation: her son is gone.

But as I said, every piece of this puzzle of a film fit seamlessly together, and every role was key to the overall story of this movie. Jacob Tremblay was outstanding as the youngest son of Susan, as he was the middle ground between Henry’s intellect and his mother’s inability to be a grown-up. He steps up to the plate and knocks it out of the park in several scenes, giving the audience some of the most emotional moments in the film. Another key piece was Sarah Silverman. I’m going to be honest with you: I’m not a big Sarah Silverman fan. Her humor isn’t my cup of tea, and aside from her role in 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph, I’m not big on her acting either…until now. Silverman, in my opinion, gives a stellar performance that blew me away, and has made me a fan. I’m seriously going to go back the last few years and see what other films she has been a part of, and check to see if I’ve missed more. Silverman emotes so much honesty in her eyes in The Book of Henry, and allows for some levity in scenes that fit just perfectly.

Much like many films, however, I do believe that there were some weak points that didn’t translate well in the film for me. I’m not a fan of creating a story where the direction of the plot requires so much emotional gravity in such a short amount of time. I know, death scenes are meant to obviously emote sadness, but I spent about a good 25 minutes just feeling like I was going to tear my heart out with so much grief. Why is this bad? When the film gets to the scene that is supposed to be the most emotionally engaging, you’ve already spent your audience with everything that led to it, to where when the time comes, it’s more of a relief for the audience rather than a moment of despondency. The impact is not as it should be, and your audience is just hoping for this sequence to be over, so that they can start to feel hope again.

Another issue I had was that I’m not a fan of creating convenience for the sake of convenience in a script. Yes, we know Henry is a genius, and he has planned everything to the letter, but there comes a point in any film where some things just don’t tend to fall into place that easily. For example, Henry happens to walk into a gun shop, undetected, and within the three minutes he’s in there, he learns everything he needs to know to buy a gun without a license: the shop owner is crooked, and you need to name drop someone named Dominic. With those two pieces of information, and some cash, you can walk out with apparently a bazooka if you wanted. The convenience of this situation seems too lax for me, and doesn’t match the rest of the incredible scenes throughout the film.

All this aside, the film still holds pretty well overall. The Book of Henry highlights one of our most darkest of truths in this country: influence trumps integrity. If you know someone of influence, or you, yourself, hold a position of high influence, you could ultimately get away with anything. Even though Henry went to every single appropriate person he was able to, and attempted to report the atrocities that were occurring next door, due to the neighbor’s position in the community, nobody wanted to push the issue. Even when Child Protective Services was called, the issue was swept under the rug because the neighbor is related to someone in the department. There are many bright points to this film, but it all serves as a conduit for viewers to see this issue. This is the gravest of truths in our society today, and the way this film conveys this message is what shines the brightest for me.

Rating: 3.5/5 atoms

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