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Review: The Book of Henry -“A tonal mess”

If you dig deep enough inside The Book Of Henry, you’ll realise there’s a great film aching to start somewhere in there. Unfortunately, it remains buried in the rubble of an underwhelming screenplay. Despite the claims of being genre defying, the story doesn’t actually know what is trying to be, hence turning into a tonal mess.

Set in small town America, the film follows pre-teen Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) who is trying to live a seemingly normal life for a boy his age, whilst actually coping with the burden of keeping his family afloat. Henry is in fact a wonder boy – although he prefers referring to himself as precocious – led by his beautiful mind to become not just an honorary man of the house, given his father’s absence, but de facto the only responsible member of the family who is capable of managing the household’s finances.

His single mom Susan (Naomi Watts) has obviously been left bruised and battered by whatever happened with her children’s father, although nothing is ever mentioned on the topic, and so she “does her best”, working as a waitress and then playing her sons’ video games or getting plastered with her BFF (Sarah Silverman) in her free time, whilst poor Henry takes care of bills and saves his little brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay) from the daily bullying. Don’t get me wrong, she tucks his boys in bed every night, reads them children’s stories she writes and aspires to get published and even sings them songs playing the ukulele. Susan is not a bad mum, she just isn’t the most qualified or the most ready for the task.

Yet she happens to be particularly empathetic and concerned for Christina, a girl the same age as Henry, who lives next door with her stepfather, played by Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris. Glenn Sickleman – yep, that’s the man’s unsubtle surname – is the small town’s police commissioner. He may not be exactly suburban neighbour material but his not-so-friendly attitude clearly stems from something way darker than complaining about Susan’s dry leaves messing up his garden.

When Henry starts spying on the shady man, due to his concern/crush on Christina (Maddie Ziegler), the situation becomes delicate to handle, especially after the boy’s peeping raises suspicions of domestic abuse likely happening next door. Yet, as he tries to expose the man, Henry soon realises that Mr Sickleman’s position in the community allows him control over pretty much everyone within the local law system.

If you think all this already feels quite Lifetime TV movie of the week, wait until you watch and find out about the big twist I could never possibly even hint at without ruining the experience. Let’s just say that something I could’ve been on board with – had the story been developed differently – comes across as far fetched and forced-fed to the audience just because it’s a movie, it’s entertainment and all that jazz. I am plenty open to suspend my disbelief as much as it’s needed but at the very least, I expect a level of storytelling that’s worth my suspension.

Screenwriter Gregg Hurwitz should have either focused on the family drama at the heart of his script or – if he really wanted to stick with the kind of thrillers that have made him a best selling novelist – he should have probably made an effort to develop the suspenseful morality tale his characters face into something remotely compelling, rather than presenting us with a ludicrous twist and a one-dimensional villain.

What’s most frustrating about The Book Of Henry is the wealth of talent at the film’s disposal, both behind and in front of the camera, who try hard to make a ridiculous story come to life in a remotely compelling fashion but are let down by a screenplay that feels like one of those silly pitches or script submissions I passed on during my time as a Hollywood intern in script development.

It’s a shame, because both kids are phenomenal and surely prove to have great chemistry as on-screen siblings and, if anything, their performance alone is worth the price of admission. Lieberher, who revealed his talent alongside Bill Murray in underrated dramedy St. Vincent (2014) and then impressed next to Michael Shannon in Midnight Special (2016) will next be seen this autumn in the new cinematic adaptation of Stephen King’s IT. Cynics may say he has played different versions of the same kind of loner/special/precocious kid so far but I dare you find another young actor capable of making me believe he handles Naomi Watts’ tax return… He is simply a natural and someone who does a lot with a little he’s given.

Tremblay melted our hearts in Room (2015) and is destined to do so again in December starring in the adaptation of Wonder, R.J. Palacio’s YA literary phenomenon. Once again, some will think he’s just the impossibly cute kid we’re supposed to awe after, but it’s interesting to see him in a non protagonist role here and yet manage to steal the scene over his seasoned co-stars.

The adult cast have a harder time convincing us, especially poor Dean Norris who proved masterful at dissimulating emotions and agendas in Breaking Bad whilst here has a monotone “guilty” expression embedded on his face from the start. Watts does her best to make this mother-in-need-of-growing-up half believable, but the moment the story shifts into a certain direction, she struggles to keep us engaged. Sarah Silverman is charming in her supporting role though once again, her character is underdeveloped whilst it could have served an actual purpose in the story instead of disappearing anonymously. And don’t even get me started on the wonderful Lee Pace being relegated to insipid arm candy for a potential happily ever after.

Director Colin Trevorrow is at his third feature film here and it’s kind of hard to believe, since his previous one was Jurassic World (2015) and his next one will be Star Wars Episode IX (2019). He broke into the scene with quirky Sundance darling Safety Not Guaranteed in 2012 and one can’t help but wonder whether not working with his usual screenwriter Derek Connolly on The Book Of Henry had something to do with the film’s issues. He does a diligent job here but given the potentially interesting themes at hand, it’s obvious that the filmmaker who delivered a rather original film debut and then revived an anemic Hollywood franchise seems to have just helmed this project as a director for hire. Here’s to hope that being reunited with Connolly on Star Wars will rekindle his creative spark.

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