This is the story of a precocious boy who helps his longtime neighbor escape an abusive family situation. No, wait, this is actually the story of a woman who must overcome personal tragedy in order to step into the motherly role she’s been avoiding. Actually, now that I think about it, this is actually a movie about a little kid teaching his mom how to murder someone. These sentences are all accurate descriptions of The Book of Henry, but none of them successfully describes the bizarre result that comes out of those three plots being part of the same movie. Focus Features’ decision to advertise The Book of Henry as a quirky inspirational drama isn’t entirely honest, but I don’t blame them. The only accurate way to advertise this movie would be with two words: fucked up.
Henry is the protagonist. He’s a precocious eleven year-old who is much smarter than every other kid in his grade. He is also super kind, which is why everybody loves him. He is played with saintly blandness by Jaeden Lieberher, which his appropriate because he is a seemingly flawless character. He is written to be the purest, most exceptional child that ever was. In practice, he comes off as unbearably obnoxious. Henry is better than everyone else at everything. He is better at making money than his adult mom. He is also better at taking care of his little brother than his mom. He is even better at giving out cancer diagnosis than a professional neurosurgeon. Most importantly, though, he is better than everyone else at noticing that the girl living next door is being abused by her stepdad.
There is no point beating around the bush, The Book of Henry is a terrible, terrible movie. I would hate it if anyone anywhere in this big wide earth were to pay any money to see something this incompetent. Now, I want to go a little bit deeper into why exactly this movie manages to be as bad as it is, and to do so I will to give away what happens in it (I was going to write spoil, but there is nothing to “spoil” in such a rotten movie). God help your soul if you want to watch this movie and not know what happens. For the sane ones amongst you, here it goes: Henry wants to do something to help his neighbor, but nobody believes his accusations because the girl’s stepdad is the town’s well-respected chief of police. Then out of nowhere, Henry starts having seizures and is diagnosed with terminal cancer (yup, Henry diagnoses himself). Because he doesn’t want to leave this mortal coil without helping the girl next door, he comes up with a brilliant plan to do so from beyond the grave. The plan: to get his mom to shoot the stepdad in the face.
I am not exaggerating of being facetious. Henry leaves behind a series of tapes for his mom in which he gives her instructions on how to buy an assault rifle in the black market and murder the chief of police without getting caught. Of course what this guy is doing to his stepdaughter is horrible but… what? You would think an eleven year old would have a mighty hard time convincing his mom to commit murder, but you’ve forgotten that Henry is better than everyone else at everything. He is so smart, he is able to anticipate every single thing his mom will think and say while hearing his tapes, and in an insufferable bit of quirk, recorded them accordingly. Because nothing says heartwarming comedy like a dead child teaching his mom how to kill. Here’s a brief approximation of how these scenes work:
Henry (from beyond the grave): Mom, you have to kill the chief of police.
Mom: Surely, there must be another way to help.
Henry (still from beyond the grave): I know what you’re thinking and there is no other way and here’s why…
These are by far the stupidest, most unwatchable scenes in the movie, culminating in an unintentionally hilarious exchange in which dead Henry’s recording tells his mom that in order to pull off this murder she needs to be as quiet as a ghost, to which she replies: “…like you”. It’s worth mentioning that the mom is played by Naomi Watts, an immensely talented actress who simply does not deserve to be straddled with such a uniquely horrible role. The plot takes such bizarre turns that we must conclude the character is simply insane, but even before we can come to that conclusion, Henry’s mother is presented as an offensively incompetent woman. She can’t take care of her children, she can’t bring food to the table, she spends most of her life sitting in front of the t.v. playing violent video games, and she defers to her eleven year-old son to make any important decision in her life.
The mom character is the worst offender in a script that is rooted in casual misogyny and a rather twisted understanding of human morality. Henry represents the essence of narcissistic masculinity. He reads to me as the result of a very masculine fantasy of wanting to be the best at everything, and wanting to be the most noble and righteous person in the world. Even more disturbingly, the women in Henry’s life wouldn’t be anywhere without him. His mom is completely adrift and lost without his presence, either while he was alive, or through the many notes and instructions he leaves once he’s dead. And the neighbor girl, similarly needs to be saved by Henry’s selfless actions and ghostly machinations. There is even a suggestion at the end of the movie that a handsome doctor (played by the always handsome Lee Pace) might fill in the void Henry is leaving by becoming the sturdy man who will keep this girl save and this daffy woman grounded. And I haven’t even mentioned the ridiculously creepy scene in which Sarah Silverman kisses Henry on the lips.
At this point we’re probably asking ourselves the same thing: why does this movie exist? The screenplay for The Book of Henry was written decades ago by a guy named Gregg Hurwitz. It failed to be produced for years, and would probably have remained that way if it weren’t for director Colin Trevorrow. He is one of the young directors (mostly white and male) who go from directing a modest hit at Sundance to being given the reins of a major Hollywood franchise. In his case, the prize was Jurassic World, a bad movie that nevertheless made billions of dollars at the international box office. Trevorroow’s reward for making a lot of money is he got to make a small movie that he was passionate about… and he chose this.
What Trevorrow found so inspiring in such mawkish and cloying material is beyond me. This is the kind of movie that shamelessly reaches for the cheap tears, depicting the death of an eleven year-old in the most exploitative, tear-jerky kind of way, then features an even more shameless scene in which his younger brother cries “it should have been me!” It features both a scene of a kid building a whimsical cupcake-making machine and a scene of Naomi Watts running through the streets with a giant assault rifle. This is the kind of screenplay that could only be written by someone who has never seen a movie in their entire life, or a lunatic with a deep misunderstanding of what it means to be a human being and have emotions. It stopped rating movies on a scale from 1 to 10 a couple months ago because I find it a rather reductive way of approaching cinema. But if I were still grading movies on a number scale, The Book of Henry might have been a zero.