The Book of Henry ***1/2

Strong performances guide an intriguing but cluttered story.  

Is it worth $10? Yes 

“The Book of Henry” is going to be a divisive movie. When films are lauded on being tonally bipolar, audiences leave unsure of how to feel. “The Book of Henry” falls squarely into this category. At times, light-hearted and funny, others heartbreaking and tense, the movie changes dynamics often but in a way that seems logical, based solely upon terrific performances by the main cast.

Henry (a brilliant Jaeden Lieberher) is the eleven year-old genius caretaker for his infantile mother Susan (an earnest Naomi Watts) and younger brother Peter (the equally strong Jacob Tremblay). Henry caters to the family's finances, reproaches his mother on how she should set an example for Peter, and acts as self-appointed guardian for the girl next door Christina (Maddie Ziegler). He is very highly advanced and mature but shows the vulnerability of a child his age as well; one who wants a bedtime story from his mom, one who is imaginative and playful, one who has a crush but can't articulate the feeling, and one who develops conspiracies and develops plans to solve them. As Henry discovers that all is not right next door, he begins investigating and taking studious notes in his red book. His mother takes up his cause and, in the process, lets go of the grief in her life, finds her purpose as a parent, and matures to be the mother Henry always needed. The plot takes several twists along the way, leading to the tonal shifts, and which I won't reveal here. There are arguably three stories at play. Henry's story, Susan's path to maturity, and Christina's abuse at the hands of her step-father, the police commissioner.

The young actors turn in such strong performances that one does not question Henry's genius or Peter's relationship with his mother and brother. As the plot does get more unexpected and outlandish, Watts steps up and sells it with the right amount of grief and regret. The film does stumble a little with the introduction of a potential love interest for Susan (this is never developed) and as it moves into more of the thriller genre. The stakes are raised not by what the villain is up to but by how the protagonist proposes he be dealt with. Since the filmmakers spent so much time developing Henry and his family, little time was devoted to the crime and subsequent handling of it, leaving there no time for a satisfying resolution.

Another area the film excels, however, is in how it handles emotion. It is important to remember that however mature Henry seems, he is still a child and that lack of life experience leaves him vulnerable to certain ideals. Likewise, as Susan struggles with being a single mother by shirking responsibility and relying on her son, she lapses into the mindset of Henry as caretaker. It takes a reminder of how young he is to break her out of her own childish tendencies. This juxtaposition is what drives the emotional core of the film, yet it never feels manipulative.

Director Colin Trevorrow truly allows the characters to carry the film and while more attention could have been given to blending the various components of plot together, he knits together a workable and believable journey for his characters to go on. While the story does balance sadness and humor, malice and joy, each seems sincere and genuine thanks again to the performances of Watts, Tremblay, and Lieberher. Overall, while some may critique “The Book of Henry” on being manipulative and haphazard, those particular moments are what cement who the characters are. It is a character study rather than a plot-based film and when observed with that in mind, it is a delight.

Josh Walbert is an entertainment guru with a passion for film and television. He lives south of Orlando, FL, with his girlfriend, and relatively extensive DVD/Blu-Ray collection.

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