The Superb Film of the Year Critics Got Wrong! The Book of Henry Film Review (Non-Spoiler)

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.

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On Writing Children

 

Writing child characters is one of the bigger challenges writer’s face, causing many to not do it at all. The problems are easy to see. Make the kid too “kiddy” or immature and they become an annoyance, a pest you just want to go away. Make them too invisible and they become little more than window decoration that limits the adults without adding much in return. Perhaps what draws the most criticism is writing kids as too adult, making them precocious little teenagers in little bodies. I know I’ve been accused of the latter, and it’s hard to really avoid altogether since people have such varied ideas of what kids should act like. Maybe that’s just it, though. Kids are people too.

If somebody asks you how an adult character acts, you’d probably respond that everyone is different and how a given character acts depends on the character. Some characters are measured and calculated while other are reckless. Some are open and free-spirited and others are secretive and shut people out. Kids are no different. While some famous literary children have been praised for their accuracy, such as the infectious and adorable Jack from Room, it’s a bit hard to say that such kids are an accurate representation of all kids. They were accurate portrayals of their characters, believable like any good character should be.

See, kids come in all different personality types too. Some are immature, some are precocious. I think we underestimate kids sometimes. Overhearing the things kids say, sometimes it baffles what they may pick up from adults or just how complicated their emotions can be. Most kids probably don’t have the vocabulary in casual conversation that most adults do, but some do.

The overall point is to stop trying to write “believable kids” and focus more on writing believable characters who happen to still be children. I don’t know why I’ve been drawn to write kids so frequently in my books. Perhaps they are a source of natural conflict, natural stakes. You can’t kill the kid, after all. Right? Kids have a habit of carrying this innocence to them that makes readers care. Maybe it’s an easy way out, yet it’s not. All of these benefits to writing kids can all go out the window if it falls on its face. Leaving them out is the safer option, if anything.

Many of my signature characters are my kid characters. Ask any of my readers the first character that comes to mind and they’ll probably say Patrick. He’s first seen as a kid in my debut novel, Blood Chain. And I pretty much put him through some emotional trauma that will probably make some of my readers detest me. Yet he’s the character many latch onto the most. They cherish him and become protective of him. And I think I was able to really paint on the page a real person, with complex emotions and relatable dreams and fears. Kids are a world of untapped potential and embody so much of what makes reading attractive to us. If you want to write a kid character, find one that speaks to you. Just as you would do for an adult character. You have to keep logistics in mind, don’t get me wrong. If your kid is going to radically buck stereotypes and averages of what a typical kid their age would do, be prepared to explain why. But don’t keep your kid in too tight a box. Let them teach you and show you who they are. You might be surprised at just how complex and, dare I say, adult a character they can be.