Published Jun 15, 2017The Book is Henry is, tonally, a very weird film. What starts off as a syrupy-sweet family drama about a gifted young boy, his adorable little brother and their scatterbrained but well-meaning mom eventually hints at darker elements when it becomes apparent that their next-door neighbour is abusing his stepdaughter.
Some (initially promising) scenes hint at the makings of a dark, violent revenge plot, only to suddenly be swept away by melodrama straight out of a Lifetime movie. It eventually eases back into the revenge plot, which seems poised to take a gusty turn before, again, being interrupted by saccharine heartstring-tugging.
Henry Carpenter (Jaeden Lieberher, who, to his credit, makes a two-dimensional character likeable) is an impossibly well-adjusted, brilliant 11-year-old prodigy beloved by his teachers, peers, and family: cute kid brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay) and loving, kooky mom Susan (Naomi Watts, doing her best with this mess). He's so awesome and great! He makes Rube Goldberg inventions in his amazing, gorgeously appointed treehouse! He takes care of the family finances and makes a small fortune in stocks! He brings whimsy and wonder to everyone's lives, so naturally, something terrible happens.
I won't give anything away, but The Book of Henry devolves into overdramatic tragedy so quickly that it's frustrating rather than heartbreaking. Shortly before the film veers down this misguided road, Henry begins to suspect (and later confirms) that the girl next door, Christina (Maddie Ziegler, aka the Girl From the Sia Music Videos, who is obviously given her own dance sequence) is being abused by her creepy stepfather Glenn (Dean Norris). As Glenn is the police commissioner, with too many officials in his pocket for Child Services to be of any help, Henry begins to investigate ways around that fact to save her.
For a while, this seems like a promising antidote to the film's early sappiness; Henry makes complicated blueprints and visits a seedy gun store with some shady characters. We're all set to watch a film about a gifted kid getting in over his head, maybe even getting mixed up in crime.
Alas. From there, the film is a mess of overwrought, manipulative emotion that asks us to make too many leaps of faith, chief among them the idea that Henry is so smart that he can predict the thoughts and actions of everyone around him, down to the minute. The revenge plot picks up, with Susan at the centre, giving the film a bit of breathing room as Naomi Watts forges documents and learns how to use a sniper rifle. It's weirdly fun for a film so serious, and Watts uses her considerable talents to make these scenes compelling and tense.
Then, at the final moment, echoing the film's second act tragedy twist, a preposterous series of events lead to a deeply unsatisfying, cloying conclusion. In a film full of baffling creative decisions, it's not a surprising ending, but it's still a disappointing one.