Monday, January 29, 2018

The Book of Henry: The Critics Are Wrong; This Is an Endearing Film

Movie Review: The Book of Henry (2017)
Version: Cable on-demand rental

The Book of Henry is an endearing film about an 11 year old boy upon whom is heaped the woes and cares of a world barely within his control. He is beyond question a genius surrounded by misfits and underlings, and he does his best to use his talents to aid those in need in the time he has in life. The story takes a sad turn and you think he has failed, but then the misfits and underlings rise to Henry's hopes and dreams, and the story reaches its uplifting climax as we realize that the genius was in Henry's thoughtful trust in those for whom he cared.

In researching this admittedly quirky independent film, I saw a lot of emotional critical raw dislike. But let me be contrary to that notion in loving this movie. It could be depressing in places. SPOILER: Main character Henry dies in the middle of the film. His younger brother Peter is heart broken. His mother Susan flips out and loses it. But those don't turn out to be critical to the outcome of this story or the heart of the film itself.

Here is the gist of the story. Henry is a genius; he tells his mother's best friend, Sheila, he prefers "precocious". His mother Susan appears irresponsible, flighty, barely able to take care of two young boys let alone raise two who will grow into responsible young men. It is Henry who guides her own adult decisions, including looking after her finances and investments. While she is working at a restaurant, Henry and his brother keep an amazing "fort" in a treed back lot, where Henry does his thinking and where he builds amazing contraptions. They do for themselves while Mom plays video games in the living room after hours. Yet, she reads them bedtime stories -- she dreams of being a childrens book author and illustrator -- and has rituals which comfort the boys at bedtime. Clearly, she is a good mom. And next door, there is Henry's classmate Christina, a lovely and gentile 11 year old girl that Henry suspects is being abused by her stepfather and whom Henry seems obsessed with protecting. Part of the drama unfolds around Henry scheming to expose her father's abuse.

A good part of the film involves the intricate interplay between these key characters and it seems as if all depends on Henry's dominant smarts and willpower to overcome evil. But then all that falls apart when he dies. Key to our hope as viewers is Henry's red book, which he tells Peter to make sure he gives to his mother. And it's what that book provides Henry's mother that moves this movie and its positive energy forward. It's not quite what you think, if you've started this movie and didn't finish it, by the way. The conclusion is far different than you might have thought!

I'll give high marks to the actors in this feel-good drama. Naomi Watts is brilliant as the mother, at first ditzy as a scatter brained, clearly inept leader of the family, then slapped in the face to reality when she really needed it. It was quite a responsibility for Jaeden Lieberher as lead male in this role as Henry, but he played it well, hitting all the emotional notes when needed, yet also playing out the smart bits equally well. Maddie Ziegler is vulnerable and yet not obvious in her role as Christina. There's also a special bond between Henry and Susan's friend Sheila, played with precision by Sarah Silverman, who appear not to get along but in the end appreciate each other very much. Jacob Tremblay is very young as brother Peter, but he handles the tear-jerker scenes of losing his brother, who was his protector at school and in life.

As an indy film, The Book of Henry also enjoyed the freedom to be a beautifully filmed movie. The opening scenes were elegant. Settings were moody and defined the emotional impact of the story. The shots and lighting suited the moods as well, and the sequence timing and editing suited the storytelling rather than manipulating the marketing. This is a well crafted film. Kudos to the opening credits graphics as well.

The vast majority of the critics were wrong about The Book of Henry. If you are patient with this film and get your head out of the Hollywood blockbuster mode, you can and will appreciate this movie for the story and storytelling that it is. And that's what film ultimately is -- storytelling. If it's just about bringing in dollars to the box office, there's something wrong. This is a worthy film for most members of your family. See it!

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