The Book of Henry, the latest film from Colin Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed, Jurassic World) starring Naomi Watts, Jaeden Lieberher, and my favorite young actor Jacob Tremblay, moves into wide-release this weekend. With youngsters playing such prominent roles parents may be wondering whether it’s a movie to take the kids to see and with reviews all over the map you might be wondering if it’s worth seeing at all; read on and find out what this GeekDad thinks.
1. What’s it about?
The Book of Henry is a play in two parts. The first half of the movie serves to set the stage and develop the characters. Naomi Watts plays Susan, a single mother who is full of doubt and struggles to manage her own life yet provides a loving and nurturing home for her two boys. Jaeden Lieberher is Henry, the boy genius who runs the household and provides a calm, reassuring influence for the family. Jacob Tremblay is a masterfully acted Peter, the younger brother and in many ways the star of the film. He is the prototypical younger brother living in Henry’s shadow and struggles to find his place in a world that moves just a little too fast for him.
The story takes a turn when Henry discovers that his neighbor and longtime family friend Christina, played by the accomplished young dancer/actress/model Maddie Ziegler, is suffering abuse at the hand of her stepfather Glenn. Glenn, played by Dean Norris, who has made a career out of portraying law-enforcement officers turned bad, is the Police Commissioner and has been able to successfully deflect all accusations of abuse that were thrown his way through the power and prestige of his office. Henry, who is incredibly sensitive to injustice and abuse (perhaps hearkening back in some unspoken way to events that left him without a father), tries every option available to him in order to help his friend and neighbor but is ultimately frustrated and panicked by the system’s inability to save her from her step-father.
Cue act two. Henry, for reasons I’ll avoid going into in an attempt not to spoil the film, runs out of time and is left with what he believes to be the only remaining option – Glenn must die. Luckily, Henry is a genius and is able to use his love of elaborate schemes and contraptions to plan out the perfect crime. While he directs his hapless mother deftly through the planning stages of cold-blooded murder, we are left to wonder exactly how far Susan’s trust in her brilliant son will carry her. The trailer ends with Susan looking down the barrel of a rifle, Glenn’s head in the cross-hairs. Will she carry through with the plan?
2. Wow, that sounds pretty heavy and just a little bit crazy. Is it?
Yes, absolutely. It’s crazy. But it’s the kind of crazy that you work your way into and by the time you find yourself saying, “Could it work? Will she do it?” it seems like the only reasonable step. And heavy, wow, is it heavy. The first act is rip-your-heart-out-of-your-chest heavy and Jacob Tremblay becomes my first nominee this year for “Best Actor in a Supporting Role” because of his performance there. It’s the good kind of heavy, though, and you get eased into it. It is a lot to take in, however, and I will admit that as a father of a six-year-old boy I had tears in my eyes and felt an almost unbearable pressure in my chest.
3. What’s it rated?
The film is rated PG-13 and very appropriately so, in my opinion. The trailer makes it pretty obvious why: there’s no nudity and very little swearing but death is very much the central theme of the film. Parents should certainly be warned – this is a real PG-13, I wouldn’t recommend taking pre-teens to see this one despite the amazing performances turned out by all of the young actors. There is some lighthearted banter that borders on risqué (Sarah Silverman is well cast as the boozy-but-dependable friend of Susan and I’m not sure she can utter dialogue that isn’t risqué) and some drinking but it really earns its rating because of intensely emotional situations. Perhaps most difficult for many people will be the subject of abuse between Glenn and his step-daughter Christina. There is a strong implication that the abuse is sexual though the film never confirms it as such. There are multiple scenes in the film that lead the viewer right up to the edge of the abuse taking place and it is very, very uncomfortable.
4. Will the kids like it?
In many ways this is a delightful film. As I’ve already said, the performances turned out by Tremblay, Lieberher, and Ziegler are great and there are other individual moments in the film that will surely bring smiles. Lieberher in particular is good for quite a bit of too-smart and even a little bit of physical comedy. Without knowing anyone else’s specific situation, it’s a film that I’ll definitely recommend to my 14-year-old daughter because I think it’s right up her alley.
5. Will parents like it?
There seems to be a huge disparity between the audience reviews and the reviews from the top critics. Normally I don’t put much stock in critics’ reviews but the general reaction to this film has been so overwhelmingly negative that I have to believe there’s something there. Audiences have generally indicated positive reviews and I really enjoyed it. It’s not a “great” movie but I think it’s enjoyable and if you’re a fan of Colin Trevorrow’s other indie films I think you’ll really like this one.
6. You said it’s in wide-release but I can’t find it playing nearby, what gives?
Well, take wide-release with a grain of salt. As of now it’s in about half the theaters in my town (Phoenix Metro Area). It should be playing “somewhere” in your town but you might have to hunt for it. With the reviews it’s getting it may be in-and-out quicker than usual, particularly with the onset of summer blockbuster season.
7. Is it worth seeing in a theater?
Like I said before, if you love Colin Trevorrow’s work then I think it’s worth going to see this in the theater. The general look of the movie is quite delightful and will certainly pop in a good theater. The second half of the film is full of suspense and the soundtrack plays a prominent role in building the ambiance so take your home-viewing setup into consideration when making the decision. If you have a nice home theater that will certainly give you all you’re looking for but I’d recommend a theater over watching it on a tablet or on a bedroom television. Also take into account that the film is currently getting horrible reviews; if this affects the box office take in a significant way I imagine it won’t last long so if you want to see it in a theater you might want to do it quickly.
8. When I can sneak out to pee?
The film is only 1 hour and 45 minutes long so you shouldn’t probably need to worry too much (because you listened to me and didn’t bring your littles, right?) but if you do need to duck out there’s a scene near the beginning of the second half of the movie (trust me, you’ll know when act one ends) where Susan is frantically baking in the kitchen and she receives an unexpected visitor. This is probably the best opportunity you’ll have to take a break before things really escalate and you get into the meat of the plan to take out Glenn.
9. Is there any reason to stay after the credits?
No, other than to show your support for the awesome cast and crew who put their everything into the production of this film!
10. Final thoughts.
We discussed The Book of Henry on the most recent episode of the We Are Entertained podcast and had slightly differing opinions on the movie as a whole. Matt loved it and believes it’s the best movie he’s seen this year, I won’t go that far. There were definitely some cringe-worthy moments for me, particularly in the first act. The character development is a little ham-fisted and in your face and overall the relationships are pretty unbelievable. Henry and Peter aren’t like any kids you’ve ever met and parents, in particular, are going to have some eye-roll moments. I really don’t think it deserves the horrible reviews it’s getting; everyone I know that loves Colin Trevorrow really enjoyed this film.
**MILD SPOILER BELOW**
OK, I don’t know if this is really a spoiler because I think most people will pick it up from the trailers but I want to be careful and not ruin anything for you if you’re going into it with no preconceived notions. So stop reading if you don’t want anything spoiled.
**OK HERE IT IS**
I danced around it up above but the first act ends with Henry dying. There’s no reason to go into details but the gist is that he and his family discover he doesn’t have long to live and he goes into a mild panic trying to figure out how to save his friend Christina while he still has time left. He runs out of time. His death is gut-wrenching, not graphic or gratuitous in any way but it’s a slow build and when it finally happens it is guaranteed to leave you in some state of shock. This is the scene in the movie I’m afraid my kids couldn’t handle because I could barely handle it. Jacob Tremblay, in particular, delivers a performance that will destroy many parents in its raw emotion and abject sorrow. It’s intense; be forewarned.