This was actually considerably less awful than I had been led to expect. It was every bit as bizarre and tonally mismanaged as I’d heard, but it was actually surprisingly enjoyable and well made. This represents a quantum leap from Safety Not Guaranteed in terms of technical competence, and director Colin Trevorrow managed to extract some strong performances from the cast, particularly from Naomi Watts and the two young boys (though I was distracted by how eerily similar Jaeden Lieberher is to Dane DeHaan). There were moments which, while blatantly manipulative, were genuinely emotional and affecting.
The greatest problem with this film is the fact that it can’t decide what it wants to be. The main throughline I can settle on is the idea of children knowing better than grown-ups and possessing a piercing insight and clarity of thought that allows the adults to learn from them and improve upon themselves. Henry is a child genius who is in charge of the family’s affairs, leaving his mother free to play video games and muddle through life. He deals in stocks (during recess!) and literally instructs his mother on how to parent. Henry always knows best, and is never really shown acting like a child or demonstrating flaws. Henry is perfect – loved and obeyed by everyone. And this is perhaps the film’s greatest issue.
To get the obvious out of the way – a perfect protagonist is a boring protagonist. Henry is insufferably smug and intermittently punch-able (that is before the tumour that kills him turns up, at which point you’re basically guilt-tripped for your hostility), and The Book of Henry seems blissfully oblivious of one of the many truism’s found in the much superior Gifted – “nobody likes a smartass”. In a better, or at least more self-aware, film, Henry would frustrate and upset people with his perpetual air of superiority. Instead he’s adored and rarely questioned. His mother makes some half-hearted attempts to steer him towards normality, but she does so in bizarre ways – what mother tells her 12-year-old to take up hard drinking?!
The weirdest elements of this film are twofold – the first is that the main story of this film belongs to Naomi Watts, and it’s extremely peculiar. Her arc basically sees her go from being an immature but well-intentioned mother to a somewhat more mature and rather more responsible mother who takes some control for the first time. In short, it’s a coming-of-age story for a middle-aged woman where the catalyst for her growth is the boundless wisdom of her child. While Watts is able to bring a lot of warmth and heart to the part, the character strains credibility, just as Henry himself does.
The fatal flaw of this film, however, is its treatment of child abuse. The film takes a bizarre twist halfway through when it becomes the story of a mother fulfilling her dead child’s plan to murder their neighbour, so freeing his abused stepdaughter. To effect this premise, the film requires you to buy endless contrivances and nonsensical characterisations. The depiction of child services as corrupt and ineffectual to the point that vigilante justice becomes justified is downright irresponsible, as is the portrayal of a school that has a listless response to accusations of child abuse. It’s all horribly misjudged – showing children outsmarting adults and holding the moral high ground is fine in a family drama where kids outsmart a fiendish smuggling ring, but it’s a fundamentally bad idea in a serious drama where paedophilia is at the core of a major subplot.
There is much more going on here, ranging from nice little touches (I liked the bedtime routine) to gob-smackingly weird and ill-judged decisions (Sarah Silverman kisses a hospitalised child in a sensual way, and it’s horrifying). I can’t in good faith say it’s a good film or give it a recommendation, but it’s probably worth watching if you’re curious.