The Book of Henry
By: Arlene Allen
What do you say about a film that brought grown men to tears during a screening? The Book of Henry is a dazzling film, guaranteed to evoke all of “the feels.” It’s a simple story that is not really so simple, as scene after scene unveils that some residents of this small suburban town will go to dire lengths to keep hidden.
At the center of the story is Henry (a remarkable performance by Jaeden Lieberher), a gifted 11-year-old engineering prodigy. In addition to devising an incredible steampunk treehouse any kid (and some adults) would die for, Henry is also a superstar in school (In a scene that reminded me of the film Gifted, Henry’s teacher asks him to remind her again why he isn’t in a gifted program. Henry responds, “Because I need the psychosocial development along with my peers.”). More importantly, Henry is the protector of his family, shielding his younger brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay) from bullies and taking care of household finances so his mom, who works at a diner, can play video games in her free time. Talk about a role reversal! There are moments you’d really like to jump through the screen and shake Susan (Naomi Watts) into some common sense.
Henry is also concerned about his classmate and neighbor, Christina (Maddie Ziegler), who is coming to school with bruises, falling behind in her schoolwork and consistently fatigued. Unfortunately, everyone’s hands seemed to be tied as her stepdad, Glen (menacingly played by Dean Norris – seriously, every time he is on screen the creep vibes just roll off him), is chief of police.
Other than Glen, the characters wiggle under your skin and go straight to your heart. I’d be remiss not to mention the wonderful performance by Sarah Silverman as Susan’s coworker and perpetually drunk best friend. Her relationship with Henry is one of annoyance/genuine love, as much love as a damaged person can have for a child.
The first act ends with a serious gut punch in a truly stunning turn of events. Believe me; you need a box of tissues for this one. I can’t remember the last time I heard an audience gasp out loud during a film, but the whole audience gave one unified, tremendous sound. This is not so much a warning as it a testament to how wonderfully this film – writer Gregg Hurwitz, director Colin Trevorrow and an incredible cast – deserve huge kudos for pulling that incredible moment off so beautifully.
The second act is where Henry’s book comes in. In his red notebook he has written the steps his mother needs to take to rectify the situation next door with Christina and Glen. The action ratchets up, tension is built and you sit on the edge of your seat to see if Susan will actually follow Henry’s elaborate plan that may involve murder.
The way it seems that Henry can predict his mother’s every move and feelings toward Christina’s situation and the action she needs to take is uncanny. Henry also leaves behind a microcassette recorder and the interaction between Henry’s messages and his mother’s responses is incredible. That’s as much of the plot as I dare give away; any more would head into spoiler territory.
I’ve seen a good many great films recently, but this one left me stunned and speechless. The plot was prodigious and at times ingenious, with plot twists and turns it’s very hard to see coming. The script has more layers than your average onion. The acting is first rate – Naomi Watts is wonderful as an immature artsy mom who has a headfirst crash into reality and Jaeden Lieberher gets under your skin as Henry, a character not soon to be forgotten. This is a young actor worth keeping an eye on.
The cinematography deserves a mention too, as the scenery of upstate New York made me want to just pack my bags and head north (this may just be a Floridian’s perception, as we do not have foliage and landscapes like that. But, gosh, those long shots of the lush trees and fields had me entranced).
If you are looking for a movie that along with stealing your heart keeps you riveted in your seat, holding your breath to see what happens next, The Book of Henry is the film for you.
Final Analysis: If you enjoyed Gifted you will most certainly love The Book of Henry. It’s rated PG-13 for certain “thematic elements” and I most certainly agree. There are certain sequences likely to upset young children and leave parents forced to answer difficult questions. Overall, I give this film an A+