Strong Cast And Direction Lift "The Book Of Henry"

At first blush, Focus Features’ “The Book Of Henry” has the look of another link in a long, rusted chain of precocious kid tearjerkers, built on a chassis of empty feel-good-isms and tatty platitudes. At second blush, it is not that at all. The film is essentially genre-less, attempting a decidedly bold maneuver from family drama to revenge thriller all in the course of 105 minutes. With no interest in confining itself to the expectations of any one genre, it’s liable to leave many (most?) moviegoers out in the cold. But as an exercise in unconventionality? As that, “The Book Of Henry” is a total success: a shrewd, often startling showcase for both its cast and the obscenely undervalued talents of director Colin Trevorrow (“Jurassic World”).

Knowing Trevorrow’s lightning-fast ascendance from indie filmmaker to studio hitmaker is crucial to understanding his third feature. “Jurassic World,” in addition to being a Brachiosaurus-sized hit, was so much savvier than it got credit for, baking an astounding sum of self-reflexivity into a $150 million monster movie. It walked the stupid-smart balance beam so cleanly that many viewers missed its self-commentary altogether. The film’s lone animatronic dino was a dying Apatosaurus. This was no coincidence. Trevorrow’s debut, “Safety Not Guaranteed,” was a different beast altogether: An incisive time travel comedy featuring career best work from the entirety of the cast. It shot out of nowhere to land as one of the biggest charmers of summer 2012.

Trevorrow has proven himself malleable, to say the least.

“Henry” stars the always brilliant Naomi Watts (“Birdman”) as Susan Carpenter, a single mother of two boys: Henry (Jaden Lieberher), an 11-year-old polymath, and his younger brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay). Henry is an outright genius, capable of filling the household void left by his father and then some, assisting his mother in tasks like managing her stock portfolio and his brother in creating the kinds of Rube Goldberg contraptions that most children can only dream of. At times Henry is the perfect child: Whip-smart, empathetic, and fiercely independent. Conversely, he can be moody and paranoid, traits his mother sees emerge in him in a big way in regards to the girl next door.

Henry swears up and down that Christina (Maddie Ziegler) is being abused by her stepfather, Glenn Sickleman (Dean Norris). Susan sees Henry’s accusation as none of their business, resigned to her mercurial family life like a garden walled off from the world. She loves her children, tolerates her job as a waitress, and softly enables the alcoholism of her best friend and co-worker Sheila (Sarah Silverman). The Sicklemans’ problems belong to no one but the Sicklemans, she thinks. And maybe the police. But for one nagging problem: Glenn Sickleman is the police commissioner.

Without teasing out too many of the movie’s various curls, Henry faces a serious illness and requests his mother’s assistance in stopping Glenn. The film’s trailers have hinted at a violent comeuppance for Glenn; whether that is or isn’t the case is best left up to the film itself. Nevertheless, Trevorrow makes an admittedly unlikely premise as plausible as possible – there aren’t many things some moms wouldn’t do for their children – all while turning in a couple visually of striking sequences that double as sly commentaries on the perks and pitfalls of age. Elements of Gregg Hurtwitz’s screenplay could certainly be qualified as dubious, but Trevorrow is a born storyteller and sells it to the best of his significant ability.

Above all, the cast is magnificent. Watts makes magic of one of her most muscular starring roles to date, at once sweet and steely-eyed. Lieberher channels more of the mature-for-his-age gravitas he lent “St. Vincent” and “Midnight Special.” And Tremblay, best known for “Room,” is as lovable as ever, tasked with a surprising amount of screen time and some weighty emotional beats that he hits like a pro.

Trevorrow directs his actors beautifully, navigating each performer through every little hill and gulley of the story, no matter how far a few of them might stretch the boundaries of believability. In the hands of just about anyone else, the actors might have been marooned on an island of insurmountable tonal issues; Gregg Hurtwitz’s screenplay might have come off as a firecracker of bad taste. But Trevorrow makes it cohere, painting an unusual story into something by turns heartfelt and thrilling. It all makes for a pretty strong bit of summer escapism – something its director just might know a little bit about.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: June 16, 2017
Studio: Focus Features
Director: Colin Trevorrow
Screenwriter: Gregg Hurwitz
Starring: Naomi Watts, Jaeden Lieberher, Jacob Tremblay, Sarah Silverman, Lee Pace, Maddie Ziegler, Dean Norris
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements and brief strong language)