When film students in the future search for terrible movies in 2017, they’ll have a hard time locating “The Book of Henry.” Not because it’s good — trust us, it isn’t — but because it will be hard to find.
The Naomi Watts-led film is a domestic drama, a thriller, an exploration of modern parenting, a revenge flick, a call to social action, a meditation on grief, a caper and a movie about a budding genius. Since it doesn’t spend enough time doing any of those things, watching it is as frustrating as trying to categorize it.
It opens as the story of Henry, an exceptional 11-year-old who is trying to navigate a brutal and unexceptional world. Along for the ride are his normal brother and his overwhelmed but slightly infantile single mom (Watts, very good at the wrenching drama, confused elsewhere).
Henry (the terrific Jaeden Lieberher) is the de facto adult in the family, paying bills, buying stocks, giving computer tutorials, overseeing the shopping and protecting his younger brother. “Find me another male of the species who’s more grown up than him,” his mom says of her first son. As for her, she’s a waitress at a diner, drinks too much wine and plays first-person shooter video games.
Henry is a genius, but a non-threatening, quirky one. He uses payphones instead of cellphones, microcassettes instead of digital recorders, builds his own walkie-talkies, uses a Polaroid camera and wears World War I-era googles in a way that’s supposed to communicate cuteness. He constructs complicated Rube Goldberg contraptions in his tree house, which is designed in Tim Burton Lite. The film seems to want to stretch toward fantasy or whimsy but it fights an established sober tone grounded in the early winter leaves and fading light of New York City suburbs.
As soon as we settle down to what seems to be a domestic coming-of-age drama, things take a turn first toward horror when Henry suspects his next-door crush is in danger, and then another zag when a medical problem suddenly arrives. It ultimately becomes a thriller before adding some farcical elements, collapsing on its own preposterousness. Written by Gregg Hurwitz, author of the “Orphan X” thriller novels, you might feel as if you’re on your own Rube Goldberg contraption.
Raising — and then quickly abandoning — interesting dramatic avenues, “The Book of Henry” becomes completely unhinged, with Henry’s mom running around the forest cradling a high-tech sniper rifle. Soon the cliches start piling up — a good-looking doctor becomes a love interest, the chilly police chief with something to hide is protected by small-town politics, a girl tries to communicate her pain through dance and we are subject to various bad montages of people carefully planning elaborate missions.
The film is directed by Colin Trevorrow, who directed and co-wrote “Jurassic World” and has been tapped to do the same with “Star Wars: Episode IX.” He apparently has made a pit stop between blockbuster franchises to make a complete mess of a small film. The only thing not thrown at this film was a dinosaur or a cute robot.
The script leaves many good actors completely marooned. Maddie Ziegler, making her film debut (she danced in Sia’s “Chandelier” video), shows promise with her brooding brokenness, and Dean Norris (“Breaking Bad,” “Under the Dome”) is a deliciously charming heavy. Jacob Tremblay, playing Henry’s brother, turns in a wonderfully complicated take on what’s it’s like to be in the shadow of a prodigy. And Sarah Silverman gives us a prickly, honest turn as a co-worker of Henry’s mom until a truly terrible final scene that ruins all her work.
It’s hard to tell whether Watts is simply miscast or anyone would be doomed in her role. There are times when she simply drifts and others when she threatens to take the film by the scruff of its neck. When she’s on, she gives her all — parental love, crushed by sorrow, silliness and lethally focused, including a touching scene in which she strums a ukulele and sings the new Stevie Nicks song “Your Hand I Will Never Let It Go.” But this is a film that she can’t save and one that you can do nothing else but let go quickly.
The film’s muted yet still rather flamboyant terribleness derives from the fact that it seems to be juggling three or four borderline schlock genres at once. It starts off as one of those movies about a precocious kid genius — and on that score, for half an hour or so, it’s actually rather watchable. Then it evolves into a tale of the child abuser next door. Then it morphs into a disease-of-the-week weeper, at which point the awfulness is only just getting started. For “The Book of Henry” — I’m trying not to give too much away — is a movie about how an 11-year-old brainiac lays a trap for the child abuser, all as a way of taking everyone through the grieving process. It’s not entirely clear whether you should be laughing, crying, or waving a white flag.
Trevorrow was thinking of 2012 at Wednesday night’s world premiere of Focus Features’ “The Book of Henry” at the Arclight Culver City to open the 23rd LA Film Festival.
“My first film ‘Safety Not Guaranteed’ premiered at Sundance and was the closing night of the Sydney Film Festival and it gave me the opportunities that I have now,” he said on the red carpet. “So I want to support other filmmakers, especially at this festival which pushes new diverse perspectives. We really need those now because we lock ourselves into the pattern of doing the same thing over and over instead of taking a risk and staring over the edge.”
Trevorrow, whose last film was “Jurassic World” and whose next is “Star Wars: Episode IX,” explained that he had asked festival director Jennifer Cochis for the opening slot and requested Focus to forego a New York premiere. “This festival matters,” he told the audience.
Screenwriter Gregg Hurwitz was in a reflective mood on the red carpet, noting that he had started work on the script in 1999 when he was 24. “I’ve been with it longer than I’ve been married and I wanted to keep that drive of it being a kid with the first Final Draft program,” he added.
Cast members Jacob Tremblay, Maddie Ziegler, Dean Norris, Jaeden Lieberher and Bobby Moynihan attended the premiere. Naomi Watts sent a video greeting and noted that she was filming in Budapest.
Ziegler, who is making her feature film debut at 14 after becoming famous as a dancer, noted that she was struck by how different her role is from herself: “The character I play is so fragile which is so not like me,” she said.
“I loved being in this film,” said Moynihan, who plays a restaurant manager. “I got to play an adult, which is rare for me, instead of being the crazy guy.” (Agencies)
By Mary Kennedy