The Superb Film of the Year Critics Got Wrong
The Book of Henry has cult Indie hit written all over it. It stars 2 beloved child stars who are known for a handful of critically acclaimed roles over blockbusters. It has a rather offbeat plot with a mixture of genres and decided lack of summertime cinematic flare. Yet, it does what few movies ever care to do: take dramatic risks.
I won’t be one of THOSE reviewers who spoil plot twists (at least not in THIS review. I may do a spoiler review because the film merits discussion), even though a pivotal twist midway through sets the tone for the remainder of the film. I give credit to the trailers for not giving this away and yet rewatching them it’s so apparent. That’s the mark of a good twist. And the moments themselves are just gut-wrenchingly well-done and moving.
Jaeden Lieberher (St. Vincent, Midnight Special) stars as the titular Henry while Jacob Tremblay (Room) is his younger brother, Peter. The two boys carry so much of the emotional weight of the film. They play one of the most real and lovable pair of brothers to grace the screen in ages. I like that they were able to show a healthy and loving brotherly relationship not mired in loudmouth conflicts. Naomi Watts effectively handles the role of their mother and takes the baton as film lead as we get further into the film. In the film, offbeat family moments slowly give way to a more intense vibe when Henry’s suspicions that the girl next door is being abused by her stepfather lead the family members to take more drastic steps to save her.
While I won’t spoil the big moments, the movie has legitimate guts. Few films would have the guts to do what this film does at all, let alone halfway through, let alone as in your face as they do. And yet it never feels manipulative or artificial. I bought every second despite the fairly contrived nature of the plot. I credit the actors with this because they seem to believe their characters. Lieberher is spectacularly low key as the genius and melancholy Henry. I think what makes so many precocious film kids grating is that they are directed to be a bit obnoxious about it. Lieberher is the exact opposite, carrying his genius with a quiet humility and wanting to use it mostly to the benefit of his family. He’s also allowed to have moments of “being a kid” shine through both in his inventiveness and his entertaining of his little brother. For his part, Tremblay is excellent. While a more supporting role than his turn in Room, he’s consistently a strong screen presence. Lines of dialogue that are admittedly a bit hammy feel completely natural coming from him. Kids aren’t always known for subtlety, after all. Watts is very good as well. Some scenes have her a little too wide-eyed. But in the moments where it counts, she comes through like a champ. Most importantly, she helps make these three believable as a family.
Much has been made of the film’s stark tonal shifts. I found the tonal shifts a lot more understated and organic than most critics. They’d have you believe Watts and the abusive stepfather/police commissioner next door (Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris) get into a violent shootout in the woods with supporting characters falling in the crossfire. Instead the “thriller” aspects of the last act stem pretty blatantly from the earlier events of the film. Don’t get me wrong. The film has some notable tonal shifts, but the animated, over-the-top reaction by some critics is really a lot more absurd than any moment in this film. I can see some of the artistic choices that probably would’ve been better left undone. There are some beats left out that I as a writer would’ve probably included or explored more, particularly in the back half. But this is fine-tuning critical territory, not make or break statements about a film’s overall quality. When it comes down to it, this is a drama about real people in a fairly manufactured situation, but one that the actors sell without flinching. I can understand saying that this movie isn’t perfect, but when all is said and done, I think this one could be remembered as one where the critics were just wildly off from what the average person thinks. Looks like we have a new cult favorite to champion. Here’s hoping we see more of Jaeden Lieberher and Jacob Tremblay because they are two of the realest young actors in the biz.