BY ROGER THOMAS
The character named in the title is a gifted child. Henry is an incredibly intelligent young boy who impresses his teachers, his mother, his doctor, and anyone else who crosses his path. The screenplay makes sure the audience understands Henry’s brilliance from the beginning.
Henry is played by Jaeden Lieberher and his performance is the best part of the film. Lieberher has acted with one of my favorite directors, Jeff Nichols. “Midnight Special” was the name of the film; not one of Nichols best works, but Lieberher was one of the best things in it. This young actor also did fantastic work in “St. Vincent,” a film that always makes me cry. His next work is the new version of Stephen King’s “It.” May it be better than “The Book of Henry” in every way.
There are other strengths. Naomi Watts, who has been nominated twice for Oscars in “The Impossible” and “21 Grams,” plays Henry’s mother. Watts character, Susan Carpenter, relies on her child prodigy for most of the responsible actions that take place in the home. This is the first flaw of the film. Susan is playing video games when she should be sharing time with her children or learning to take some of the responsibility off of her 12 year-old. Certainly in reality there are many negligent parents in the world, Susan’s character, however, just seems odd in an unbelievable way. She is smart, yet incapable.
Besides, Henry has a younger brother named Peter who definitely needs his mother more than Henry. Peter played by Jacob Tremblay. Tremblay should have received an Oscar nomination for his role in “Room.” His work here is fine, but not near the quality he offered in “Room.”
Other important characters include Glenn Sickleman, the police chief, played by Dean Norris who seems to get plenty of work these days. Sickleman is the next door neighbor of Henry’s family, who might just have a secret. Maddie Ziegler plays Christina, the stepdaughter of Sickleman.
The performances are not the film’s weaknesses. Without giving away too many plot points, the film is built around Henry’s suspicion of what is happening next door. Anyone who has seen the trailer for this film, already knows what is suspected because it is spelled out on the screen. That possibility is what moves the second half of the film forward. After the focus has shifted from Henry to Susan, a plan is put into action.
There are many dramatic moments in the film. There are good actors involved. The film has some clever humor and some sets that are ingenious. Some of the unexpected twists work better than others. And there are moments when the emotional elements work. The problem is that the main plot does not seem based in reality. I do not think an adult would choose actions depicted in the film.
As the film begins to focus on the plot that is the center of the preview trailer and the film itself, everything collapses. Not one moment of the climax resonates in reality. There are simply too many holes in the story. I continued thinking, “That would not happen in the real world.” There are too many things that simply do not ring with any truth.
Then comes the climax. I suppose it works on some level. It is certainly sweet and wholesome at the end. All things are resolved.
I am not sure who the audience is for this film. Few adults will find it compelling. Children under ten will have a lot of uncomfortable questions. Teenagers would probably laugh rather than empathize with the characters. So who would enjoy this film?
Someone who does not want to think too much. Or perhaps someone who likes this cast, because they are talented. Other films have proven these cast members are quite talented.
Roger Thomas is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association. He reviews films for The Stanly News & Press.