Criticizing The Book of Henry is awkward, but describing it is nigh-impossible. If the movies produce a more disjointed effort in 2017, it’ll be a dysfunctional miracle; that they’ve already produced one as scattered as this, Colin Trevorrow’s follow-up film to his thunderously stupid 2015 box office colossus, Jurassic World, is baffling enough. It’s as if Trevorrow, riding high on a tidal wave of hype, studio clout and global legal tender drenched in both, was given a free pass to do whatever he wanted, and wracked by indecision he chose not one project, but all of them. You get the sense he started out making a kids adventure flick, realized it lacked throughlines involving child abuse and terminal illness, and proclaimed, “No. This will not do.”
Blend Rear Window’s paranoiac mystery with Matilda’s precociousness and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’s insufferable twee dishonesty, and you still might fail to replicate The Book of Henry’s exact imbalance of bonkers incongruity. Ostensibly this is the story of Henry Carpenter (Jaeden Lieberher), the astronomically bright, overwhelmingly mature eldest son of single mother Susan (Naomi Watts). He’s the de facto man of the house, a role model and a protector of his younger brother, Peter (Jacob Tremblay). He’s the main bread winner, too, so gifted with stock market wheeling and dealing that he’s managed to set up his mother financially for life (though she refuses to quit her job at the local diner, no matter how crummy the shifts).
But most of all, he’s observant, and deduces that his neighbor, Christine (Maddie Ziegler) is the subject of untold debasements by her stepfather, Glen (Dean Norris), the police commissioner in their community, and so Henry makes it his mission to expose Glen’s crimes. No, wait: Most of all, he’s suffering from unexplained headaches caused by lord knows what. No, wait again: Every time you think you’ve got the film figured out, Trevorrow changes his mind and takes the story in a new direction, wholly unrelated to the direction he’d taken it just moments prior. He refuses to settle on a single mode, aesthetic, or intention, and hems and haws over every single narrative choice with reckless abandon. By consequence, watching The Book of Henry is a lot like noshing on an everything bagel, while driving an airboat through the nightmare tunnel in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory at breakneck speed.
Put in uglier terms, the film is nauseating, but for a brief stretch of its duration it’s almost crazy enough to transcend its inexplicable hodgepodge. If nothing else, it’s at least charming by dint of its central cast, who vibe with one another in ways that offset the saccharine establishing details of Gregg Hurwitz’s script. The Carpenter family might be too cute for this world, but there’s something to be said for their over the top domestic bliss in this particular moment of American history, where the first family generates friction both within and without, and white dudes of age increasingly prove their unfitness as leaders. (Trevorrow is obviously fixated on unfit adult masculinity, hence his choice of protagonist, but says nothing of depth about masculinity’s place in modern society.) Susan reads Henry and Peter bedtime stories, tucks them in with kisses and endearments, and smashes at Gears of War so long as Henry doesn’t interrupt her fun to talk about Boring Important Grown-Up Things™.
You can unpack troubling meaning from the Carpenter dynamic, of course—the idea that Susan, an adult woman, can’t run her household sans the guidance of her no-nonsense eleven year old son is more than a little patronizing—but The Book of Henry comes close to working as a treacly family flick, but then we hit the loop-the-loops Trevorrow’s genre rollercoaster. All of a sudden it’s a message movie about the failures of CPS bureaucracy, the true meaning of personal legacy, and so much else (even metatextual bullshit about metaphors), that we forget about where the film started: With characters. (Unrealistic, cloying characters, but characters nonetheless, if we’re being charitable.) Trevorrow doesn’t just throw in the kitchen sink, but countertops, too, plus custom cabinetry and a first floor powder room.
When you make a film about everything, you’re really making a film about nothing. Specific to The Book of Henry, all of that nothing feels cheap at best and insulting at worst, a crass attempt at addressing serious concerns that ends up boiling them down to vapid, featherbrained entertainment. Child abuse isn’t an issue to take lightly. The Book of Henry does, and also bungles the payoff by toeing the edge before backing off in an inexplicable climax designed to slough points off the audience’s collective IQ while denying, or perhaps modifying, the fantasy Trevorrow uses to drive his plot. The film gets to pat itself on the back for its decency, while still indulging a shockingly tone-deaf thread of vigilantism, all while callously ignoring the victim as a character. Ziegler hardly gets any speaking lines, most of them being accorded to Trevorrow’s young adult male savior; when she communicates, it’s mostly through dance. That’s apropos for Ziegler, but still a party foul for storytelling, to say nothing of basic empathy.
The Book of Henry means well, but it doesn’t do well. It does incoherent pastiche and self-congratulatory pap instead. Occasionally, Trevorrow distracts us with a lovely stray shot, a’la Watts cradling Lieberher in a dark-lit room, and nearly succeeds in inundating us with enough sappy eccentricity to gull us into accepting the film’s less elegant gestures. But the film’s zany, feel-good sentiment is undermined by its disorderly structure and (likely unintended) subtexts. How, exactly, are we supposed to feel good about regressive big-screen gibberish?
Director: Colin Trevorrow
Writer: Gregg Hurwitz
Starring: Jaeden Lieberher, Jacob Tremblay, Naomi Watts, Maddie Ziegler, Dean Norris, Sarah Silverman, Lee Pace
Release Date: June 16, 2017
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for The Playlist, Slant Magazine, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.