The Book of Henry; 105 min; Rated PG-13
It is impossible to review “The Book of Henry” in the traditional sense: commenting on the characters while giving a summary of the plot. To fully appreciate the depth and breath of this extraordinarily touching film, it is essential that the audience not know how this movie is constructed, at least in its specifics, most especially act three.
Briefly, just to give you, the reader, a sense of the story, I’ll say that it is an affecting meditation on familial relationships. It is heartfelt, and weighted with emotions that shift, surprise and come from all directions.
Let me begin with Henry (Jaeden Lieberher), 12, who is, in the opening set-up, called to the front of his public school class to give an oral report on the topic of “Legacy.” Henry explains that his legacy will be about the people in his life, those he loves and cares about.
Immediately, it is evident that Henry is no ordinary kid; rather, he moves in a world of his own making, one that is complex, imaginative, and above all else deeply human. Henry is precocious, keenly observant, and beyond measure analytical; but he is still a kid, a kid free of cynicism or rebellion, though he is aware of how flawed many of the adults are who touch his life.
Henry lives with his younger brother, Peter (Jacob Tremblay), for whom he feels responsible (they go to the same school), and his mother, Susan (Naomi Watts), getting by in a two-story wood frame house in upper New York state.
Susan works in a diner. The boys’ father has long been absent from the family, and so Susan struggles to keep them above the economic Plimsoll line.
As is soon evident, Henry, whose quiet intellect is astonishing, knows that Susan relies on him immensely to help her with many aspects of parenting, so much so that Henry manages their stock portfolio and home finances with an uncanny talent (he’s buying tech).
The film has a warmhearted patina, best exemplified by Susan saying goodnight to the boys as they lie in their beds at the end of the day. She reads them a story she has written, envelopes each of them with a caring embrace and asks them if they want a small nightlight on or off and the door left open or closed. It’s an endearing ritual.
Because Henry is so vigilant and insightful, he begins to notice that the girl next door, Christina (Maddie Ziegler), who is in his class in school, seems withdrawn and troubled. He tries to ask her if all is OK, and she only nods and quietly says yes. Henry is not convinced. What he gradually concludes takes the narrative of the film in an unexpected and dark direction. One that is completely unanticipated.
Let me say again, that I completely bought into this film’s irresistible and emotional premise.
Of course, the story is implausible (now I’m referring to act three), but plausibility is irrelevant, for at its center “The Book of Henry” is magical and allows the emotions that fill every scene to sweep the audience along.
I loved the ambience, the characters, the warm glow, and I believed without hesitation that though Henry was wise beyond his years, stunningly bright, he was still a kid, a kind kid, but 12 is 12.
There are and will continue to be an abundance of movies that are shallow and meaningless, except for CGI’s ability to create harrowing, seamless action. Marvel and DC studios are drawing endless buckets from this well.
But recall Henry’s legacy: it’s about the people in his life and what they mean to him. And “The Book of Henry” is, from the first scene to the last, about those people.
One last point: This film, while a touching drama, is also a taut and surprising thriller, one you won’t see coming. What it is not is about manipulating the audience or falling into a maudlin abyss. It is simply fine storytelling, from the beginning to the end.
A final comment: The title is not a throwaway. Henry’s red notebook is essential to the plot and ultimately to understanding Henry.