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Absurd story twist kills tender drama 'The Book of Henry'

POSTED: June 16, 2017 10:00 a.m.
Josh Terry/

Dean Norris as Glenn Sickleman and Naomi Watts as Susan Carpenter in “The Book of Henry.”

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“THE BOOK OF HENRY” — 2 stars — Naomi Watts, Jaeden Lieberher, Jacob Tremblay, Sarah Silverman, Lee Pace, Maddie Ziegler; PG-13 (thematic elements and brief strong language); in general release

There are a lot of things to like about “The Book of Henry,” but none of them are enough to offset a bizarre plot twist that tries to turn a tender drama into an action suspense film.

Early on, “The Book of Henry” feels like a close cousin of “Gifted,” last April’s emotional story about a custody battle involving a brilliant first-grader. “Book of Henry’s” titular protagonist (Jaeden Lieberher) is an 11-year-old genius, living with his single mother, Susan (Naomi Watts), and younger brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay) in upstate New York.

Henry’s gift with investments is apparently what is enabling his little family to live in a beautiful Victorian home while Susan fills her time working on children’s novels and taking waitressing shifts at a quaint ice cream shop downtown. They live next door to the police commissioner, Glenn (Dean Norris), which would be great if he weren’t abusing his stepdaughter, Henry’s classmate Christina (Maddie Ziegler).

Henry’s advanced intellect came along with a keen sense of moral duty, so he makes it his quest to help his young neighbor. But small-town politics and Glenn’s relationship to the people who would be investigating him make prosecution difficult.

At any rate, this plot is quickly set aside when Henry suffers a seizure in the middle of the night. A neurosurgeon named David (Lee Pace) informs Susan that Henry has a massive brain tumor, and is surprised to discover that the young boy seems fully aware of his predicament. At this point, all of the work Henry has done to support his family becomes work to ensure his family’s well-being after he’s gone, and he makes Peter promise to get his mother to read his little red book — the titular book of Henry — after his death.

Henry’s book becomes the key to the second half of the “Book of Henry,” and it’s around here that director Colin Trevorrow’s film wavers, then goes off the rails onto a plot line that stretches a reasonable story into implausibility and then preposterousness. The details will be spared, but the effect is to take a compassionate story about motherhood, family and goodwill, and attach it to a narrative anchor that may have meant well, but essentially sinks the whole thing.

It’s really a waste of a sharp production. The New York setting, filmed in the fall, is beautiful, and cinematographer John Schwartzman (who also worked with Trevorrow on 2015’s “Jurassic World”) uses some fantastic lighting (some viewers may find some late scenes with Norris recalling Marlon Brando’s scenes at the end of “Apocalypse Now”).

“Book of Henry” also benefits from some sweet performances that underscore its tender themes, none more so than Tremblay, who comes to life as Henry’s innocent foil. In one heartbreaking scene, Peter laments that he should have received his brother’s fate.

It just makes it all the more disappointing that “Book of Henry” felt the need to take such strange twists to solve its plot. If there was ever a film that might have benefitted from a sudden, “It was all a dream!” bailout, “The Book of Henry” might be it.

“The Book of Henry” is rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language; running time: 105 minutes.
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