(SPOILER WARNING FROM HEREON OUT!!!!! I spoil absolutely every aspect of this movie in this review. You have been warned)
Inevitably Preamble-y Intro
I try my best to avoid using the word ‘pretentious’ when it comes to film criticism. Outside of the fact that it is, without question, one of the most overused words when discussing any piece of art, it’s rather misused by everyone. Pretentiousness, to put it simply, is putting a false sense of merit on a subject that does not require it.
To hammer this in, let me use examples of works that have been described as ‘pretentious’: American Beauty and Inception. Whether you like these movies are not, both of them outline their points in clear and precise manners. American Beauty is about appreciating the wonders and, well, beauty of the world and not to be so utterly consumed by the societal and cultural hang-ups we tend to overprioritise, like sexual accomplishments, job satisfactions and material possessions. Inception is about how our emotions and inescapable feelings tend to be a roadblock to achievement and clarity of purpose, and should be properly maintained instead of let out of control, hence the dreamscape mode being the main premise as you cannot escape your emotional baggage in your dreams. They have valid points to make as works of cinema. I do not use the word pretentious lightly. And yet I feel it applies pretty readily when talking about recent maverick of blockbuster maestro Colin Treverrow.
For those not in the know, Treverrow is a filmmaker who has done three features at the time of this writing. He was met with much critical acclaim for his indie sci-fi dramedy Safety Not Guaranteed, but his most noteworthy achievement came in Jurassic World, being one of the highest grossing movies of all time. So criticising the guy’s work, a man I have never met and has achieved far more than I ever have, is quite a hefty task. This isn’t meant as a personal attack-I have never met Mr. Treverrow, and will assume he’s lovely. But his movies have never worked for me, and I think that’s because all three of them seem to run on a very interesting philosophy. They’re all subversions deliberately designed to appeal to a mass audience.
Safety Not Guaranteed is a movie about time travel where we spend most of the film until the end not knowing if the time machine is real or not and. This is probably his strongest film, because the set-up is solid, it’s a clever take on an old sci-fi concept yet also relatable. It’s not that far-reaching because people like Mark Duplass’ character could be someone you read up on, and it makes the ending play out pretty naturally. Unfortunately, it’s marred more by the fact that this is the only idea it has, as it hits an incredible second act lull with way too much focus on a subplot that really goes nowhere, and the premise of ‘Is this guy crazy or not?’ is not enough to carry even a relatively short 86-minute runtime.
Jurassic World, on the other hand, is a bit broader as it makes fun of jaded consumerism by reimagining Jurassic Park as a kind of Sea World-esque attraction. It’s a commercialised product self-aware of its commercialism and pokes fun of it. There are a lot of issues with Jurassic World, so many I could make a larger article about them, but the main issue with the commercial conceit is that it’s not nearly as self-aware about it as it thinks it is and has nothing that great to say about it outside of ‘sometimes the rush to stay marketable is not good’. The original may have a simpler ‘Don’t fuck with nature’ moral, but it sticks to its guns and executes it in a clearer way.
So, with all that said, we move onto movie number three, and the focus of this article: The Book of Henry. Trevorrow’s latest film seems to be a deconstruction of the ‘child prodigy’ trope in one of the most hackneyed and lazy ways possible Naturally spoilers from here on out, as I just go through the movie beat-by-beat and explain what exactly about it makes this film so broken and easily the worst I have seen all year.
The Actual Review Part of the Review
We open on our lead Henry Carpenter, played by Jaeden Lieberher, building some contraption in his treehouse alongside his little brother Peter, played by Jacob Tremblay. What I will give this movie is that it has a pretty solid cast; Liberher was fantastic in Midnight Special and Tremblay gave an unforgettable performance in Room. It also sports the likes of Naomi Watts, Sarah Silverman, Lee Pace, Dean Norris, amongst others. Pity none of them have anything interesting to do. Anyway, this opening is to set up that Henry is a super-special-mega-genius child and the Rube Goldberg machine which is a massive plot point that only pays off by the end. Yeah. Chekhov be proud.
Anyway, Henry recites an essay in class about ‘his legacy’, and it’s gratingly cynical and smug (also what a weird assignment for a 5th grade class thought up only by a hackneyed screenplay trying to make a thematic point). He makes fun of his previous classmate’s aspirations and browbeats them because they don’t focus their dreams on leaving a better world for those around them and/or on being remembered by the people in their lives. Sound advice for 11-year olds, of which you are one.
Ignoring the unreality of a kid his age being this world weary and obstinate, the biggest issue with the film is that Henry is kind of a little asshole. He’s self-righteous, incredibly judgmental, bossy, insufferably preachy and rude to people who don’t fit his worldview. This all would be fine, even if the ‘asshole genius’ is becoming kind of a tired character type by now, if anybody ever called him out over what a little shit he is. He’s well-liked by his fellow students and adored by every adult around him. There’s never any justification for any of this, especially as he’s kind of antisocial and dismissive of other people around him . His brother gets bullied, and at worst he’s kind of mousy and insecure. Henry is a way larger target because he’s so outspoken and snotty. Elementary school bullies generally do not care if someone is smart!
Anyway, we then see his home life, and Henry and Peter are being raised by their mother Susan (Watts). Susan’s characterisation is really weird-they do that whole role reversal bit where she’s more childish than her son, but the way they display this is that she…plays games in her spare time and is kind of goofy. She has aspirations of being a children’s author, but puts that on hold to work a waitressing job to keep her family afloat. Henry does her taxes (because of course he does), and it’s implied she’s not very responsible because she doesn’t drop everything after doing her job and picking up her kids, but it’s really contrived because she’s clearly responsible, she just doesn’t prioritise financing over making sure her kids are happy.
I dunno, are we supposed to believe she’d let her family go homeless if her impertinent shithead of a kid didn’t do her taxes? She keeps good relationships with her neighbours, even if she doesn’t like them, and she clearly puts a lot of care and effort into taking care of her children. I only bring this up because of a scene later where it feels like the film wants us to judge her as a parent and responsible adult, but if the worst thing she does is not buy a car she can’t afford because her old one breaks down a lot, she’s doing better as a parent than most parents I know! At worst, she’s a bit too relaxed about how she talks around her kids.
Let me break from describing the plot here to talk about presentation. They’re clearly trying to go for a Spielbergian 80s family adventure movie in terms of style, and the set design on the treehouse and Henry’s eccentric builder attitude give that impression, but the editing and cinematography make it feel way more dour and flat. The shots are muted colours, it’s got a really autumn-y feel and the way scene are cut gives more emphasis on, say, Henry’s urgent financial woes than her mother having a fun time playing an action game. There’s this weird dissonance between intention of the script and how it was put together.
Now, I know the film handles some really dark subject matter later, so I get why it doesn’t feel like some whacky family comedy, but when you’re clearly aiming for some kind of quirky demeanour masking the more serious elements, and everything about how the movie is shot, blocked, presented and even scored is super serious, all the more ridiculous elements of your story (like a child who acts like his parent’s spouse than her kid) really doesn’t hit well, and it undercuts the more dramatic beats. There is some amazing tonal wonk here, and it only gets worse.
We are introduced to Susan’s workmate and (presumably) best friend Shiela (Silverman). She’s a trashy loudmouth super stereotypical “Jersey girl”, though thankfully Silverman’s performance gives her a level of humanity. There is a lot of time given to develop this character, mostly her alcoholism and faux-antagonistic relationship with Henry, and yet she serves little purpose to the story. The only function she really seems to serve is to artificially make Susan look bad, because our child-god Henry doesn’t like her and she…DRINKS AT THEIR HOME WHEN THE CHILDREN ARE IN BED!!!!!!!!!
The way this is framed is super annoying, as it’s implied that she shouldn’t have her friend over or she’s enabling her, and is yet another way the movie tries to frame Susan as irresponsible. Again, if they were going out on a bender and leaving the kids at home I’d get it, but they’re having a glass of wine and talking whilst the kids are in bed. The movie struggles to make Susan seem a little irresponsible but still likeable, and really fails at the former.
Let’s go into the main focus of the plot. The Carpenters live next to police commissioner Glenn (Norris, because of course he’s playing a cop) and his stepdaughter Christina (Maddie Ziegler). To the (implied willful) ignorance of the town, Glenn is abusing Christina. We discover this through Henry witnessing a rather ominous reaction Christina gives upon hearing her stepfather come upstairs (thankfully, none of the abuse is shown onscreen). While the way the scene is framed makes it look like Henry just discovered this, he runs to the principal’s office in the next scene inferring that they’ve discussed this already (so…yeah, A-1 editing there). The principal will not voice her concerns without substantial proof due to Glenn’s status, and his brother (conveniently) is the head of child services and will not seriously investigate the claims. Henry then decides to take it into his own hands without ever talking to Christina about it.
Speaking of, let’s talk about Christina. She is not a character in this movie. She’s given barely any screentime, we find out about her abuse from afar and none of the characters ever attempt to discuss it with her. She is a prop for the story-there to drive other characters’ motivations, but never her own. She becomes a surrogate daughter figure for Susan, she is the object of abuse for Glenn, the object of saving for Henry, and even her one character trait distinct from others, her dancing, is used as a prop for a tertiary character’s growth (I’ll get to that). She is one of the least developed characters in the story, which is even weirder as she’s arguable the most important to the plot outside of Henry. It’s a really insulting way that it treats her, particularly as she’s a subject of abuse.
Henry decides after trying all of two options to concoct a scheme. We see him perform various tasks and tests, including measuring the drop off a nearby ravine. Most notably he goes to a gun shop where he hides in a way that would make him be instantly spotted if the editor didn’t act like this was a grand old hiding place. He hears a name of some gangster that is being used to get a gun without a background check, and is nearly caught out because of a dizzy spell. We see this happen twice, and I only bring it up because it’s obviously a plot point, but the way it’s displayed makes it seem way less important than it actually ends up being. I legitimately thought he had a mild form of epilepsy, that’s how innocuous this set up is.
Okay, yes, I’m going on ANOTHER tangent, but a lot in this movie is stupid and it just piles up one after another. They set up a lot of things in a pretty on-the-nose matter to pay off later on. This itself obviously isn’t a bad thing; planting and pay-off is a staple of storytelling. No, the problem here is that the priorities of the set ups are a little strange. The ones for innocuous thematic beats are well defined and established, like the ritual of turning on the night light and closing the door or the scene where Henry entertains his brother by pretending to go up a mountain slope using a fan and fake snow (it’s the image used for the poster and a lot of the promotional material). These are well defined, but not actually that important to the plot. Stuff like Henry’s dizzy spells are not, and they are of vital importance. Same with the abuse, actually-we only get slight hints that Glenn is a little assertive and Christina is kind of reserved. It just throws you off how weird the priorities are.
So, Henry has a seizure and has to be rushed to hospital. Instead of being a surprising tonal shift, it comes right the fuck out of nowhere and is really damn hard to get invested in. And it’s STILL some of the best stuff in the movie, mostly down to how great the actors are. We get a teeth-grindingly annoying moment, where it looks like they avoided the temptation of having Henry explain to his doctor his illness…only to then do exactly that, even adding a joke that his brain is too big (fuck off). The doctor is Lee Pace’s character David, by the way. He’s given a good deal of development, and outside of a minor inconvenience later has no impact on the story.
Speaking of characters with no impact, we have a scene with Sheila where Henry (and I am ready to murder this kid before his tumour takes him, btw) psychoanalyses their love/hate relationship and Sheila gives him an uncomfortably long kiss on the mouth. And that’s it-outside of yet another plant-pay off moment later with a game her and Susan play, she really doesn’t appear again. A character which had an entire scene devoted to her self-destructive alcoholism, and is easily more developed than the main focus of the plot. Okay, then.
Henry tells his mother to be more responsible and do grown up stuff yet again, asks his brother to let his mother read his journal, and dies in her arms. Susan, distraught, starts making desserts constantly and tries to…oh, right, were you not expecting that? The Henry of The Book of Henry dies halfway through the movie. That’s it, that’s the big hook they were leading up to. Child savant dies of a brain tumour before the story has a chance to end.
Honestly…this is a great idea. No, seriously, this really could have worked if they had handled what was coming a lot better and not tried to mould the story into being about ‘THIS IS ABOUT THE STORIES WE LEAVE BEHIND!!!’ when all we had to set that up was his annoying speech at the beginning. Hell, if that’s the case, it’s Susan who shaped everything-as we’re about to see, his final wishes don’t come into fruition. And don’t worry if you miss our mini-Sherlock, because he prerecorded messages play throughout the film to condescend to his mother some more. Way to make the impact of his passing have fuck all effect, guys.
Here we go, here it is. The moment that makes this movie go from bad to utterly broken. Peter disobeys his brother and reads his journal. Rushing down to his mother, he reveals Henry’s plan; he’s going to kill Christina’s stepfather. Yup, this 11-year old planned to obtain a sniper rifle from saying some gangster’s name, murder Glenn with the help of contraptions set up in his forest of a back garden, take Christina and drive off with her with a car he bought. Oh, right, sorry, did I forget to mention that an 11-year old financially secured his mother by playing the stock market and even bought her a new car? How perfect is the little shit?!
Anyway, back to his ingenious murder plan which is absolutely airtight because Susan does that shticky thing of naming out solutions and having Henry already written responses, how was he going to do this before he died? Was he going to get the gun himself? Did he seriously think he could actually convince his mother to be an accomplice in this? I mean, she’s kind of essential to his overall plan-he can’t drive! The only reason she goes along with it is because she’s grief-stricken and happens to see Glenn ominously walk into his stepdaughter’s room. I kind of want to see a version of this story where Henry survives and tries to murder his adult cop neighbour by himself.
Anyway, Susan gets the rifle, and hatches the plan. Earlier on, they mention a talent show where Christina will show off her one character trait and it’s time to bring that up (as mentioned in this video, it also makes the timeline for the movie weirdly limiting, as this is mentioned before Henry died). Peter is there too, and Susan agrees to bring him and Christina, thus providing an alibi for her whereabouts (it’s a flimsy one, as no one would be able to pinpoint actually seeing her there within the time, but whatever).
Guided by Henry via a tape recording he left (I wonder what other decade this mid-80s child will Quantam Leap into next?), Susan rushes to set up the trap to get Glenn into the woods and shoot him. Whilst she’s fumbling around and panicking, she sets off the Rube Goldberg machine (the narrative gun has been fired before the literal one!). Get this: the machine eventually releases photos of her children from when they were young. And with Henry yelling in her ear to shoot, she rather melodramatically proclaims “No, you’re just a child” (seriously, it’s a really overdone line read), and this is what convinces her not to murder a police commissioner. Not the insanity of this plan or how absolutely none of this could possibly work (I left out stuff too, like her tricking Glenn into signing away custody). She happened to pull the switch on a machine that reminded her that she’s taking instructions from her dead preteen. I take back what I said about her being a good mother.
As she’s leaving with the rifle (DISMANTLE THE DAMN THING BEFORE LEAVING!!!!), Glenn catches her. There has never been a more upped jig than the jig that was up here, and yet she still threatens the scumbag with absolutely no leverage and caught with a rifle after he was called out within scope using her son’s inventions. Don’t worry in case you didn’t think they’d force a happy ending out of this…even with the dead Henry (though that is a happy ending in some regards), because wait for this contrived bullshit!
While Susan was rushing to the treehouse, we’ve been cutting back and forth to Christina’s dance. Her dance is so incredibly telling of her mental state that the principal, who initially dismissed Henry’s claims that he witnessed abuse with his own eyeballs, decides that this is evidence enough to call in a report on Glenn. Because she danced sad. Anyway, this is finally enough to open an investigation on his actions, and Glenn is informed before he can say anything about Susan. Just as the police arrive to question him, the arsehole shoots himself in the head and this entire ordeal has the easiest and most unsatisfying goddamn resolution based on nothing any of the main characters actually did. Huzzah. This is nearly over.
Susan adopts Christina (we skip over THAT whole process because thankfully we’re nearly at the end), and we end on a repeat of the ‘lights on, doors closed’ bit-this time with Christina in Peter’s bed and Peter in Henry’s. They’ve essentially replaced Henry with somebody else, which is a really nice and not at all weird note to end on. Guess his legacy is to be replaced with his much less pretentious brother (for now) and the girl from across the street he had a crush on take his brother’s place! What a load.
So that was The Book of Henry, one of the most tonally confused, awkward and bizarrely mismanaged movies I have seen in quite a while. It’s hard to know where exactly they went wrong here, because while I don’t really like Treverrow’s other films, they’re nowhere near this bad! I know I’m kind of treading on well-trodden ground here, even the director has commented on the backlash. I just feel like this is a great example of a movie failing despite having a lot of the ‘right’ elements.
We have a fimmaking crew fresh off the success of a multimillion dollar success, a star-studded cast of incredibly talented people, a memorable hook that’s a throwback to classic Amblin-esque 80s flicks whilst also dealing with serious topics such as the bystander effect, terminal illness, loss, and other elements. It even has a great watercooler twist halfway through the film. I guess, if anything, it’s a display of how you can have everything you could want for a successful little personal drama, and still manage to mess up in some key aspects that prevents it from really landing. It’s a shame, but hopefully Treverrow and his crew can learn from their failings for the future. I mean, it’s not like they have something lined up that anyone really has a lot of investment in or an-