(2017—Director: Colin Trevorrow)
High ★★ (out of 5 stars)
Back in 2012, I stumbled upon an indie sci-fi rom-com called Safety Not Guaranteed, the narrative film debut of writer-director Colin Trevorrow (the 2004 documentary Reality Show). Though not a perfect package, Safety was the type of film that makes its viewers watch the director’s next move. That next move, as it turns out, was writing and directing 2015’s box office behemoth Jurassic World. Confident in Trevorrow’s skills in blockbuster filmmaking, Disney hired Trevorrow to direct 2019’s Star Wars Episode IX. That left Trevorrow a good three years to craft his newest film The Book of Henry, working from an original script by crime novelist and comic book writer Gregg Hurwitz. The resulting film, unfortunately, might cause the heads of several Disney executives to turn and reconsider their hiring decision.
Henry Carpenter (Jaeden Lieberher, Midnight Special, the upcoming It) takes care of his younger brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay, Room) and his single mother Susan (Naomi Watts, Mulholland Dr., Birdman). That alone sounds normal enough, except Henry is a brilliant (“I prefer the term ‘precocious’,” Henry would say.) eleven year old while his mother is an insecure diner waitress and children’s picture book writer with weak parenting skills. Henry takes a liking to girl-next-door Christina Sickleman (Maddie Ziegler, the dancer from recent Sia music videos), whose stepfather Glenn (Dean Morris, AMC’s Breaking Bad) is the town’s police commissioner. When Susan discovers that child abuse is going on inside the Sickleman house, she soon finds that Henry has devised a plan, contained in the titular “book”, to help the young Christina. But before Henry can execute the plan, he is suddenly stricken by a serious ailment—one that might force Susan to overcome her insecurities and execute the plan herself.
The Book of Henry is a most bizarre combination of family-friendly Spielberg knockoff, girl-next-door romance, and mature thriller involving child abuse. This concoction fails to cohere into one solid cinematic vehicle, leaving audiences to either overlook the strong performances or latch onto them as tightly as possible. Jaeden Lieberher handles the precocious Henry like a champ. Henry never backs down the adult side of his personality, even when he confronts his school principal about reporting Christina’s abusive stepfather. He only acts more like a kid when humoring his younger brother, played adorably by Jacob Tremblay. At the other end of the age spectrum, Naomi Watts conveys Susan’s single mother insecurity with confidence. Finally, while they lack significant screen time, it is nice to see comedic actors Sarah Silverman and Bobby Moynihan (as Susan’s diner coworker and boss, respectively) play down-to-earth characters who support Susan.
For the first third of The Book of Henry, this central trio keeps the story afloat. But then, director Colin Trevorrow and writer Gregg Hurwitz decide to have innocent single mother Susan and Henry, her brilliant young son, resort to extreme vigilante justice. Moreover, the filmmakers incorporate a sordid theme whose gravity the film only glances at and a disease subplot that stalls the story’s middle while crippling its last third. It is when the story takes a sharp corner into hospital cryfest territory that the film falls apart under its tonal struggle, never to recover. The Book of Henry wants to deliver both family-friendly thrills as well as a child’s perspective on domestic perversity. In the end, Trevorrow and company fall short of accomplishing either one.
Directors create a solid balance when working on studio blockbusters alongside their smaller independent projects. That balance collapses if the directors find little success with their own films, creating concern for the deep pockets behind the big films that have hired those directors. Such has now occurred between Trevorrow and the Disney producers behind the Star Wars franchise. With The Book of Henry, Trevorrow may have directed sturdy performances out of his actors, but he has also shown poor control of subject matter and tone. Could this misfire spell disaster for Trevorrow’s Episode IX? In the wake of Henry’s disappointing release, it would not surprise me if Disney executives have considered altering Trevorrow’s influence on Episode IX’s production. The best Trevorrow can do at this point is to pray that they do not alter it any further.
(Parental Note: The Book of Henry contains both family-friendly thrills as well as more mature themes throughout. Given his more adult outlook, Henry does not shy away from using a swear word or two in his conversations with his mother. In some of these talks, younger brother Peter is present. Preventing child abuse is a major motivator for the heroes’ actions; we see Henry and Susan witness it off-screen through unobscured windows in separate scenes. Susan and her coworker drink plenty of wine during one evening scene, with the kids listening to their drunken laughter just outside of the room. A character dies of a brain tumor. Lethal firearms are seen and used.)