Where to begin? It seems like just yesterday when we all enjoyed a jolly laugh over the totally bonkers trailer for The Book of Henry, a movie that promised everything: a precocious child genius, his womanchild mother, an adorable Jacob Tremblay, a pretty girl next door, and of course a plan to murder her abusive stepfather. It seemed so insane it just had to be fun, right? Wrong. Having sat through the joyless monstrosity from director Colin Trevorrow, I am here to warn you: This movie is not only ungodly long, astoundingly senseless, and emotionally stunted, but also weirdly sexist.
Things begin as a romp. In opening titles, playful music rambles over animations of sketches of simple machines and sweet-faced children, all presumably factoring into the titular book’s contents. Then a bespectacled Jacob Tremblay races through the woods to the quirky treehouse of his 11-year-old brother Henry (Midnight Special’s Jaeden Lieberher). It’s a cockamamie but charming construction, made of sun-drenched wood, rusted barrels, a shiny door from a firetruck, and a refrigerator door at its entrance. Inside, Henry works stoically on a Rube Goldberg device that squirts icing onto a proffered cupcake. It seems like the start to an Amblin movie, full of character and wonder. But the set design is the most lively character. And Book of Henry will unfurl as if Spielberg were a sociopath, unconnected to empathy and unclear on what wonder really is.
Henry is not the rosy-cheeked and caring child of Amblin adventures. He’s no everykid with a heart of gold, but a brilliant boy who is sullen and judgmental. In a class assignment where he’s asked to deliver a speech on his “legacy”— because that’s a totally normal project for 5th graders — Henry takes a moment to mock the lisping classmate who dreamed of being an Olympic dodgeball champion, and then wonders aloud if thinking of your future isn’t just “comfort food to stave off existential crisis.” Out the gate, he’s an insufferable know-it-all. And things only get worse when he’s around his single mother Susan (Naomi Watts), whom he criticizes for everything from cursing in front of her kids to her ratty but running old car to how she throws her whole body into playing video games. Screenwriter Gregg Hurwitz likely means for this to be a fun turning of the tables, the genius child caring for his childish parent. It’s a twisted relationship that Trevorrow’s bizarre direction attempts to spin as eccentric, which never works, because both writer and director are essentially romanticizing an abusive relationship.
Henry behaves not as Susan’s child, but as her partner, and a frustrated one at that. He lectures her on parenting. He believes he knows best. He pays the bills. He’s made them rich with his investments on the stock market. So why can’t she just do as he says? Buy a new car? Stop working at her humble waitress job? Sure, you could argue Henry just wants his mother to have the financial comfort and nice things. But then you see how Henry tries to wedge himself between her and her only friend (Sarah Silverman), and it reads as something more nefarious. Like abusers do, Henry is undermining Susan’s independence and isolating her from the outside world. And things take a truly deranged turn in the second act.
Major spoilers below.
Now one of you guessed from the trailer that Henry isn’t even alive when his mother begins following his involved murder plot of the wicked man next door. Points to you! A tumor strikes down the kid just after act one, and much of act two is spent laboriously stepping through his final days, in which he records a very—some might say incredulously—detailed audio tape to guide his mother through the perfect crime. With earbuds in, she carries on conversations with her dead son. As she hyperventilates, his tape chides her not to panic. As she turns the wrong way down a street, he snarks, “Your other right.” Clearly Trevorrow and Hurwitz think this level of specificity in direction is a fun joke for the audience. But at my screening, only harsh guffaws sounded over the preposterous specificity of these directions. And all the while, a sinking feeling consumed me. Even beyond the grave, her domineering son was demanding how she live her life.
I’d like to be generous and imagine the filmmakers were self-aware in the twisted nature of this relationship. But the treatment of the film’s other female characters suggests they have a major blind spot to the idea that women are people too. Susan is treated like a laughable fool through much of the movie, as she flails in raising two boys on her own, bumbles gawkily through criminal conspiracy, and gasps in theatrical alarm, “We are not murdering the police commissioner!” See, it’s not enough to report the abuse against the girl-next-door, because the sinister stepdad is a pillar of the community. It’s like The Keepers, but lacking any depth or emotional awareness. And to top it off, a hot doctor, who is shown to be as smart as Henry (at least about neurosurgery), is introduced to assure the audience that Susan won’t accidentally burst into flames without Henry around to watch over her.
Meanwhile, Susan’s only friend Sheila is a trashy Jersey girl stereotype in acid-washed jeans, big hair, and tattooed tits who squawks, “Hey toots, what’s tricks?” as her first line. To her credit, Silverman tries to bring some humanity into the role. But with Henry sneering as the two women have a girls night of red whine and conversation, Sheila is viewed primarily as an obstacle to his mother’s abject attention. Then, as she’s found passed out clutching a wine bottle, she’s a hot mess not worthy of Susan’s attention. She’s a character who serves no apparent purpose in the story, then shares a bizarre moment with Henry, where she gives him an uncomfortably long kiss on the lips on his death bed. Why? He offered some psychobabble about it, but by that point I was cringing so hard I couldn’t listen.
Lastly, there’s Christina, the dazzlingly lovely girl next door, who dances like a dream but holds a guarded expression and sad eyes. Dance Moms phenom/Sia muse Maddie Ziegler takes the role that is essentially nothing. Thankfully, the child abuse is all offscreen, suggested from the horrified expressions of its across the hedge witnesses. But aside from a few mute close-ups and a big dance number at the pivotal school talent show—where we’re subjected to a white kid rapping who shouts “shiznits” because at long last the filmmakers have no decency—Christina has little screentime. She never brings up the abuse. And in a plot hole so massive you could fly a space station through it, NO ONE EVER TALKS TO HER ABOUT IT.
While Susan and Henry wring their hands over the failures of the police and child protective services, neither of them goes to Christina to offer help. They don’t give her a chance to share, the kindness of knowing she’s seen. They never ask her if she has other family who might intervene. They never offer to take her to the police. They decide for her what’s best. She’s barely a damsel in distress and more a prancing McGuffin.
Then after all this, Book of Henry doesn’t even have the courage of its convictions to stick its ludicrous ending. At the moment when Susan is about to pull the trigger, you might sigh with relief that this is at least almost over. But then a hacky return of the Rube Goldberg devices sparks a change of heart, and at long last the realization that she shouldn’t be leading her life by the guidance of a bullying child. Instead, she confronts the villainous molester, in a scene that is painfully forced. And by the way, Christina’s dance was so beautiful that the principal finally decides to call Child Services after all, because sure. And so the cops are coming for him, and he can’t deal so he shoots himself. So the lesson is what? It’s wrong to kill, but it’s cool to push someone to suicide?
I know. I know. You read all this and maybe laugh at its brazen lunacy. Perhaps you think, ‘I’ve got to see that for myself!’ But trust me, you don’t. As bonkers as this movie is, it’s not fun; it’s infuriating. The Book of Henry offers a despicable child hero, a ludicrous plot, and a cast of characters carved with all the delicacy of a chainsaw on a butter sculpture. To say it’s a bad movie would be an insult to bad movies. And those wondering what this might mean for Trevorrow’s Star Wars: Episode IX, I’d say you have reason to worry.
This story shows such a shocking misunderstanding of human emotions that you might suspect it was made from a robot that just upgraded from playing chess to tone-deaf Twitter botting. It’s so insipid and punishing and deplorable that I feel I’m owed hazard pay for enduring it. Don’t ignore me to see if it’s “so bad it’s good!” Life is too precious to waste any of it on The Book of Henry.
Kristy Puchko is considering early retirement.