The Book of Henry, a peculiar drama directed by Colin Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed, Jurassic World) from a script by novelist Gregg Hurwitz, opened last weekend to generally negative reviews, with some critics proclaiming it a disaster. I don’t disagree that the film is confused and needlessly sentimental, yet I consider it a provocative failure—more interesting to think about than a predictable success like Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake (which is currently playing at the Music Box). The Book of Henry features an ambitious narrative structure that keeps viewers on their toes, and its premise is strange enough to hold one’s interest (if never one’s sense of disbelief) for the entire running time. It’s major failing may be that Hurwitz and Trevorrow don’t organize their ideas around a graspable theme; the movie plays according to a nebulous logic, never settling on a recognizable point of view with regards to the material. Sometimes that ambiguity works for The Book of Henry, evoking classic surrealism’s cryptic perspective. Other times, however, the film simply feels like it’s waiting for a sense of meaning that never arrives.
Henry takes place in a town in upstate New York where single mom Susan (Naomi Watts) is raising her two sons, eight-year-old Peter and 11-year-old Henry. To call Henry a prodigy would be an understatement—he possesses encyclopedic knowledge on topics ranging from engineering to medicine; exhibits greater emotional maturity than most grown-ups; and has already amassed a small fortune from playing the stock market. Thanks to Henry’s fortune, the family is well taken care of, but Susan continues to work as a waitress at a local diner. She works mainly to spend time with her best friend Sheila (Sarah Silverman), another waitress there. Henry attends a normal public school to “improve his psychosocial development,” even though he’s light years beyond his peers. This situation doesn’t bother him; as a miniature grown-up, he understands that this plan will be good for him in the long run.
Hurwitz’s boy genius recalls numerous examples in literature and TV, from William Gaddis’s J R to Doogie Howser to the eponymous hero of Cartoon Network’s Dexter’s Laboratory. Henry’s so gifted that his genius at times seems supernatural. He may come across as precious, but there’s also something eerie about him that doesn’t quite jive with the film’s tone of gentle fantasy. The title character seems at odds with his own story—his behavior resists the mawkish sheen of Trevorrow’s style. Henry takes care of Susan’s finances, reprimands her when she spends too much time playing video games, and assists her in raising Peter—it’s like their familial roles are reversed. Hurwitz’s script includes their daily routine to show how Henry and Susan have normalized their relationship, and the normalcy only makes the relationship seem more fantastic.
It’s never clear what Hurwitz wants to achieve with this premise. Is The Book of Henry a children’s fantasy of becoming superior to one’s parents? A satire of the Information Age, with Henry representing its ideal product? A fable, and if so, what’s the moral? Hurwitz throws any of these guesses out the window when he turns the story into a thriller, the mechanics of which totally upstage the fantastic character study. Henry likes to spy on his next-door neighbors (the filmmakers present his voyeurism as normal, adding to the film’s overall strangeness), and in the course of doing so, discovers that his classmate Christina is being routinely abused by her stepfather Glenn (Dean Norris). Henry tries to alert the authorities to stop the situation, but learns that Glenn, who’s the town police commissioner, has used his position to block any investigations into his personal life. The boy decides to take the law into his own hands, devising a plot to stop Glenn for good. (If you haven’t seen The Book of Henry, you may want to stop reading here; spoilers follow.)
This shift in genre is an ambitious gamble, and I don’t think it plays out successfully. I’d rather see where Hurwitz was going with the relationship between Henry and Sheila than sit through yet another Rear Window knock-off. But before you’ve had enough time to consider the ramifications of Hurwitz’s sleight-of-hand trick, he tries to top himself again. Henry’s plan is stopped because he’s diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. He dies after a brief stay in the hospital, roughly halfway into the film. Before he dies, though, he writes detailed instructions for Susan on how to kill Glenn and get away with it. (He also records them on audiocassette for good measure.) The remainder of Book of Henry finds Susan following her dead son’s protocols, with Henry staying in the film as an almost ghostly presence—his instructions are so precise that it seems he’s responding to the events as they play out.
The relationship between Susan and her dead son’s cassette is the battiest to appear on screen since whatever was going on in Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name. Like Shinkai, Trevorrow presents the supernatural elements with childlike sincerity, yet he lacks Shinkai’s sharply honed sense of awe. He also seems afraid of the darker implications of Hurwitz’s script. The film’s sentimental dressing is exactly that—a distraction from Hurwitz’s ideas about adult responsibility and the costs of knowledge. Those ideas still hover around the movie and occasionally come through as though by accident. I found that formlessness interesting—in failing to commit to a single identity, The Book of Henry sometimes feels like it could be any kind of movie—though I understand why others find it to be a frustrating experience.