This has been a good spring for films about brilliant children and ill children. Not that I’m complaining. Gifted was moving and well done, as was Everything, Everything. Now we have an odd film that combines elements of both: The Book of Henry by director Colin Trevorrow, his first effort after the wildly successful reboot Jurassic World.
For parents considering quality time with a teenager at the movies: see any of those three, and do skip horrible mistakes like The Mummy (why, Tom Cruise?) or the latest Johnny Depp mistake, Pirates number 139? Let’s make sure the $230 million budget is never made back, so they can mercifully terminate this franchise. Still, early summer has some good choices for teenagers, young adults, and their parents, including the fun Cars 3 and the ridiculous and delicious Baywatch.
The Book of Henry is rated PG-13. The challenging part for parents taking their teenagers may be exactly what makes this film so confounding and interesting: it is not about one thing, but about illness, death, sexual abuse, guns, power, revenge. And also about joy, ingenuity, a family’s love, brotherhood, and friendship. A light movie this is not. Still, amidst the darkness at the heart of the story I found a lot to like, including the performances by Naomi Watts, Jaeden Lieberher, 14, and the fine prodigy Jacob Tremblay, just 10 years old and still looking tiny, as he did in Room.
The film centers around Susan (Watts), a single mother of 11-year-old Henry and his little brother Peter. Henry (Lieberher) is a brilliant child who gets sick and dies in the first half of the movie, but not before he has documented the abuse a girl next door is suffering.
Once he is gone the film shifts gears from a weepy small-town family drama to a tense little thriller and ultimately a combination of both. I enjoyed those changes. If there are rules for a film maker to stick with one tone, one color pallet, a straightforward narrative, Trevorrow seems to enjoy breaking then all.
The supporting cast is great: Maddie Ziegler, 14, has the hard task of portraying an introverted girl hiding her abuse, Dean Norris is her unsmiling stepfather who doubles as the police commissioner. His power and prestige in the town make nailing him for his crimes difficult. But Susan — guided by her dead son, odd as that may sound — proves to be a talented detective, and ultimately a wise one after she picks up a gun to rectify the injustice she discovers. She is both a loving mother and a furious one — mad at the world after losing her oldest child and witnessing the abuse of another kid she loves.
Trevorrow found the story before he signed up for Jurassic World, the dinosaur fantasy that made Universal Pictures an astounding $1.6 billion. “It was the kind of story that I’d never seen before and I really wanted to do something new,” he told Entertainment Weekly recently. “It’s much easier to deal with a $200 million budget and steak and lobster for lunch than it is to find the kinds of emotions that this movie deals with.”
His new directing project will be Star Wars: Episode IX. I for one am glad he took a break from the blockbusters for this quirky, complicated film with a budget of just $10 million. There are certainly weak spots. The writing (by Gregg Hurwitz) feels uneven. When Susan says about her son to her friend, “Find me another male of the species who is more grown up than him,” I sighed. Clichéd man-bashing is always easy, never compelling, which the kind surgeon in the movie (the excellent Lee Pace) proves. And at moments the quick jumps between tearful melodrama — not that there’s anything wrong with that — and intense suspense felt too rushed.
The Book of Henry comes from Sidney Kimmel, a small production company that brought us gems like Hell or High Water and The Lincoln Lawyer. This new film lacks the tight focus of those two, and it cannot compare to the clear-eyed exuberance of Everything, Everything, which also explored a limited life full of unfulfilled promise. Still, I may need to see The Book of Henry again. It may contain acting gems I missed in the busy subplots, and there may be more mini-movies hiding inside this suspenseful family drama / super emotional noir thriller.