Most of us are suckers for a good child prodigy story. Be it Bobby Fischer, Akeelah Anderson, Salinger’s Glass family or Anderson’s Tenenbaums, we gawk at the seemingly miraculous abilities, identify with the weird families, weep at the ostracism and cheer at the victories. All of these factors are in play in Dennis Lee’s Jesus Henry Christ, the story of a remarkable boy named Henry and his quest to find his biological father.
Ten years before our story begins, Patricia (Toni Collette), wrecked by the gradual loss of most of her family and an encroaching sense of isolation, conceived Henry through in vitro fertilization. Henry (Jason Spevack) grows up with his mother, whom he flatly refers to as “Patricia,” and his grandfather Stan (Frank Moore). He began to speak at nine months and has a photographic memory that reaches back to infancy. He is bright and outspoken, and neither of these qualities win him many friends in school. Henry has begun to crave the presence of a father, and he sets out to find his own, aided in part by Stan.
What Henry finds is not only a man who may or may not be his biological father, Slavkin O’Hara (Michael Sheen), but a 12-year-old girl Audrey (Samantha Weinstein) who might be his half-sister. These two are quite the social outcasts themselves, and we meet Audrey as schoolmates taunt her with a chant of “lesbo, lesbo” and plaster her locker with the jacket of her father’s book Born Gay or Made That Way?—a jacket that features her photo.
Henry, Audrey, Slavkin and Patricia slowly get to know one another through a series of fraught conversations and misadventures, and each struggles with his or her own place in this strange semi-family, both genetic and social.
The cast is the spine of this film. Toni Collette and Michael Sheen give masterful performances as the hapless parents, and young Jason Spevack and Samantha Weinstein do the same as the brilliant, awkward children. Collette is all backbone, fighting tooth and nail for her son’s future while unknowingly losing her grip on him in the present. She carries the bizarre losses of her character’s past with a sensitivity that never slips into indulgence. Sheen is as transformative as ever, taking a character that, in a lesser actor’s hands, would likely amount to a pile of anxious gestures and professorial stuttering, and making him into a person both sweetly genuine and sadly laughable. Spevack’s Henry is so simple and open that you can’t help but love him and admire the lack of sentimentality in his performance. And Weinstein is spectacular as Audrey, weirdly blank and furious at the same time. Watching her character transform is a highlight of the movie.
These actors keep us going when the film occasionally reaches near toxic levels of whimsy. Lee’s film is exciting, quirky and very funny, but it sometimes buckles under the weight of its own cleverness, submitting us to barrages of wacky characters and wry jokes that feel more like cinematic games than devices for story or character.
When quirk and story meet, however, beautiful things happen, such as a gorgeous sequence with Audrey and Henry skipping school to explore an indoor amusement park. Here we see two smart and troubled kids slowly loosen their grips on anxiety, anger and bewilderment and allow themselves to bloom. It’s one of the most delightful moments of the film, and the young actors shine in it.
These are the moments that make Jesus Henry Christ remarkable. Amid the windblown Post-It notes, genealogical asides and unlikely turns of fate, this is the story of four people making sense of the mercurial world and their place in it.
Director: Dennis Lee
Writer: Dennis Lee
Starring: Toni Collette, Michael Sheen, Jason Spevack, Samantha Weinstein
Release Date: Apr. 20, 2012