Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) is the smartest, most responsible 11 year old you’ll ever meet. He takes care of his little brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay) in the schoolyard and he takes care of his single mother Susan (Naomi Watts) financially. I mean, she’s got income, but he’s the financial planner. He even wants to take care of the girl next door who he thinks may be abused by her stepfather, Glenn (Dean Norris). Henry’s heart is as big as his IQ, and he challenges everyone around him to be their best, which can be a lot to live up to if you’re Henry’s little brother, or worse, his mother.
Anyway, Henry is a force of nature and he’s determined to do right by his next door neighbour, Christina. She’s silent on the subject, but he’s seen the bruises and feels compelled to act, even if the adults in his life won’t. His moral compass is ginormous. It’s tricky, though, because Glenn is the police commissioner and may be too powerful to touch. Henry makes careful plans.
But what if an eleven year old boy can’t actually carry them out? His mother finds his notebook and is guilted, and perhaps guided by said compass, to act upon it.
This film was not well-received by critics but was for the most part enjoyed by audiences, including myself. It’s directed by Colin Trevorrow, kind of a departure since he’d previously directed Jurassic World, and is the co-writer of Star Wars: Episode IX. In its way, with its modest budget, The Book of Henry also bears the marks of Trevorrow’s childlike fascination. Henry may be precocious, but there’s a sense of wonder to the movie that’s quite appealing. But it’s also an ambitious movie; its shifts in tone startling at times, and perhaps not always successful.
The characters are inconsistently realistic and their actions even more so, but some terrific performances go a long way to grounding those characters. Naomi Watts is playing an imperfect but loving mother; I don’t know from where she draws inspiration, but she gives Susan a believable base, hard as that may be. Jacob Tremblay has a meatier role than just kid brother but he’s more than equal to the task. He’s already proven he’s more than just an adorable face. Jaeden Lieberher (you know him from St Vincent, and Midnight Special) as Henry has the hardest job of all. Henry is brilliant (he prefers precocious) but he is still a kid, after all, so he has to be steadfast, confident, but still vulnerable. This script asks a lot of its actors and in some ways the cast is what this movie gets most right.
The Book of Henry crosses genres, and that’s its weakness. There’s a silliness that sometimes dilutes the tension. I don’t mind a movie reaching beyond its limits, but this one doesn’t seem to have a firm destination in mind. What movie did you mean to be? I’m not sure. But I still enjoyed it on the whole, even while mentally noting all thing things I could have done better myself.