Precocious 11-year-old Henry Carpenter (Jaeden Lieberher) lives in rural New York with his younger brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay) and mother Susan (Naomi Watts). Henry is the guardian of the household, responsible for filing the family’s finances and making money over stocks and bonds while Susan earns tips at a local diner. But the gifted engineer-in-the-making notices that neighbour and classmate Christina (Maddie Ziegler) is withdrawn and sad. The prodigious Henry believes that her stepfather Glenn (Dean Norris) has abused Christina, and so he comes up with a plan to right these wrongs.
The Book of Henry is a drama about an intelligent child that is also deeply insulting to one’s intelligence. In fact, in my more than four years working as a professional film critic, I can claim with certainty that this is the worst title I have had to review. That said, it is difficult to parse through some of the reasons for the film’s spectacular stupidity without spoiling a plot development that has been carefully withheld from The Book of Henry’s trailers. For the sake of the unlucky few who still want to see this by the review’s end, there will be no spoilers.
The biggest issue of the drama is that it adheres to what Roger Ebert termed the “idiot plot,” where the only reason certain developments occur is because the characters are all idiots. That is true for Susan, whose developing urge to become involved in Henry’s schemes beggars all belief. That is even true for the prodigy protagonist, who suffers from deeply questionable ethics and motivations. The incident that spurs Henry’s mission, meanwhile, is all suggestive and potentially misconstrued. There are simply far too many holes and ridiculous motivations for any piece of the storytelling to work.
There are some fine performances; however, they are only noteworthy due to the involvement of so many richly talented actors, who should have known much better than become attached to a project so spurious. Still, the ensemble isn’t perfect. Ziegler gets little to do, rendered mostly silent in a story where her character deserves far more complexity. Meanwhile, Lee Pace shows up in a thankless role as a neurosurgeon who has a lot of spare time and might as well be wearing a shirt that reads, “I’m Susan’s love interest.”
Gregg Hurwitz’s screenplay, which occasionally flirts with themes related to grief and ostracism, develops inorganically, and unfortunately, into a crime thriller. Director Colin Trevorrow also doesn’t do the film any favours by deciding to crosscut the film’s intense climax with a dopey talent show at Henry and Peter’s school. Visually, The Book of Henry is among one of the blandest titles in recent memory. Save the set design in the Carpenter boys’ spacious bedroom, there are no imaginative or memorable images. As for the story, the odds are good that one will remember it – but for all the wrong reasons.