When Focus Features released the first trailer for The Book of Henry, the movie it promised was fascinating.
The trailer initially teased something akin to a coming-of-age film with a precocious kid and his single mom, but quickly swerved into darker territory involving the specter of child abuse, a crooked chief of police, and an assassination plot formulated by the aforementioned kid. That early preview of the film turned out to be a fairly impressive emotional roller coaster in and of itself – so naturally, there was more than a little buzz surrounding the full-length film in the run-up to its release.
Unfortunately, the full-length version of The Book of Henry proves to be an extension of its trailer in all the wrong ways.
From its wildly unfocused narrative and tone, to its manipulative emotional elements and disappointing performances that peak far too early, The Book of Henry fails to live up to the potential of its intriguing trailer. And given the pedigree of the cast and creative team involved in the film, that’s a real tragedy.
Sadly, both Tremblay and Norris feel underutilized in the script.
Directed by Jurassic World and Safety Not Guaranteed filmmaker Colin Trevorrow from a script by crime novelist and comic-book writer Gregg Hurwitz, The Book of Henry casts young Midnight Special actor Jaeden Lieberher as the 11-year-old title character. A brilliant kid whose intelligence and maturity is the glue that holds his family together, Henry is compelled to help his next-door neighbor when he discovers that she’s being abused by her police-chief stepfather. His method of doing so involves a complicated plan that his single mother, Susan – played by two-time Academy Award nominee Naomi Watts – takes it upon herself to enact.
Lieberher and Watts are joined in the cast by Room actor Jacob Tremblay, who plays Henry’s younger brother, as well as Breaking Bad actor Dean Norris as the abusive stepfather, dancer Maddie Ziegler (making her feature debut) as the victimized neighbor, and Sarah Silverman (A Million Ways to Die in the West) as Susan’s best friend.
It’s not always a bad move for a film to pull a bait-and-switch of sorts and surprise its audience with an unexpected twist or a tonal shift that takes the story in unforeseen – but interesting – directions. What is problematic, is when a film can’t seem to decide what it wants to be or the sort of story it wants to tell, and ends up tugging its audience in one direction or another as it tries to get on track.
The Book of Henry falls into that latter category and ends up feeling less like a fully fleshed-out movie and more like a series of disjointed scenes designed to have their emotional impact distract from the film’s flaws.
One of the most interesting elements in the film’s trailer was Lieberher’s character, Henry, but his role is essentially abandoned halfway through the movie. It’s a risky gamble that might have paid off if the performances from Watts, Tremblay, or even Norris were strong enough to carry the story to the finish line, but they never manage to pick up the slack.
By shifting the focus away from Henry, The Book of Henry tries to put the spotlight on Susan’s evolution from a mother who’s overly dependent on her brilliant son to a more self-assured, confident single parent, but any evidence it provides for the latter feels forced. Rather than becoming a good parent, Watts’ character comes off as only a slightly less-bad parent by the time the credits roll.
Sadly, both Tremblay and Norris feel underutilized in the script, with the latter’s role seemingly limited to casting menacing looks at Susan and her family. Far worse, however, is Ziegler’s place in the story.
Despite being at the center of one of the film’s key plot points, Ziegler’s character is given barely any lines, and spends most of the movie staring at her shoes and telling people how okay (and not abused) she is. Still, the dancer-turned-actress manages to shine in the one scene that seemingly justifies her casting: A key sequence in which she performs a powerful dance routine.
Even with its shortcomings in on-screen performances, extreme shifts in tone, and some emotionally manipulative moments, The Book of Henry is still an ambitious project – and because of that, it does deserve some credit.
Trevorrow and Hurwitz manage to squeeze some genuinely funny moments in among the darker elements in the story, and even when the film loses its way, it holds your attention – even if it’s just to see how things pan out for Susan and her family. The movie obviously wants to tell a dramatic story that addresses some very important themes, but it doesn’t linger on any of them long enough to give those topics the attention they deserve from either the characters or the narrative.
Throughout most of the film, The Book of Henry is far too comfortable figuring out what sort of movie it wants to be as it rolls along, and the end result is a film that feels like it’s stuck in some late stage of editing rather than a finished product.
Given all of the buzz surrounding that first trailer, it’s difficult not to feel disappointed in what The Book of Henry delivered. If there’s anything that The Book of Henry makes disappointingly clear, it’s that sometimes the movie a trailer promises is infinitely better than the movie we actually get.
We recommend perusing some of the Best Movies on Netflix instead of seeing The Book of Henry this weekend.
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