FOCUS FEATURES (2017)

 

Director: Colin Trevorrow

 

Starring: Naomi Watts, Jaeden Lieberher, Jacob Tremblay, Sarah Silverman, Lee Pace, Maddie Ziegler, Dean Norris

Jurassic World this ain’t.

 

Returning to his low-budget roots, Colin Trevorrow brings us a movie that’s been touted for a long while now and one clearly very dear to him. Centring on a child genius, the movie incorporates family struggles, child abuse, death, retribution and kindness fused together with drama, thriller and comedy elements. It’s a real spattering of themes and genres and at times it works, but sometimes plausibility becomes stretched.

 

But you have to take risks sometimes.

Eleven-year old Henry (Lieberher) is a young prodigy doubling as the man of the house in his fathers (unexplained) absence. He supports his struggling waitress mother Susan (Watts) financially via shrewd stock market investments whilst she pursues her dream of writing children’s books. On top of this, he guards his young brother Peter (Tremblay) from school bullies and imparts his knowledge to him on how to build various contraptions. In spite of this all, Henry remains stoically altruistic and as grounded as can be.

 

By night he notices his neighbour and classmate, Christina (Ziegler), appearing fearful and distressed in her room as her step-father (and police commissioner) Glenn drinks himself silly downstairs. When Glenn enters her room and turns out the lights, Henry begins to piece together what’s really going on. Problem is, with Glenn’s connections within the area, nobody is willing to challenge him on the accusations – not Susan, not the school principal, even the shady Child Protection Agent seems strangely blasé. Determined to help his friend, Henry begins creating a failsafe plan to rescue her from her personal hell, but a violent, deadly seizure threatens to derail his plan before he can begin.

 

Immediately the movie reminded me of the Spielberg-esque movies of the 1980s, in its look, feel and use of child actors. Set in a leafy New York suburb, the only locations of note are the family home, Susan’s place of work, the kid’s school, a scenic bridge and a gun shop with a gullible owner – everything is very contained and minimal. There’s a warming autumnal feel to the proceedings as well, something that never fails to make me happy.

 

Though the pieces fit together in the end, the various thematic strands that are at play can become slightly jarring in terms of the editing during the movie. One minute the location is a treehouse, the next Henry is listening to a criminal in a gun store – these oddities pop up frequently and don’t always blend well. There are a few plot holes which can either be a detriment or glossed over, depending on how you view the movie - the background to Henry’s genius is never told and neither do we receive any fluff surrounding the familial situation. A few plot elements are improbable also, but again depend entirely on preference – the tape recorder instructions being one example, I found them charming and indicative of Henry and Susan’s relationship but could understand if this was help up as far-fetched. Trevorrow is asking the viewer to feel different emotions all at once and it can come across as muddled at times.

 

With that said, the ‘originality’ of the story does shine through as you watch. The tables are turned and the mother is the child of the movie – all video games and getting wasted with her BFF Sheila (Silverman) – whereas Henry is the responsible adult providing the glue that keeps the family intact. As the movie progresses, we see Susan’s arc established clearly from following Henry’s instructions – it’s fun to watch, even if it is a left-field explosion. I applaud Team Trevorrow for weaving in heavier subplots and creating a story which deviates from simply child prodigy saves family. The twists thrown in are for the benefit of furthering the story and I believe they succeed. The assembled cast combine to cover over the flaws in the storytelling and are the strongest bit of the movie.

 

The central performances are all strong, and the movies young cast do a really good job of crafting likable characters and carrying the movie. Those performances give the movies wrenching twist a greater level of pathos and the authenticity is a credit to the actors.

 

The Book of Henry is a disjointedly charming movie made with warmth but falls slightly short in its storytelling. Full of lovely visuals and solid performances, it will either infuriate you or suck you in.

August 23rd 2017

© 2016 Matt Hudson / What I Watched Tonight / Essex

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