Child genius Henry Carpenter (Jaeden Lieberher) runs his mother Sarah (Naomi Watts)’s life and looks out for brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay). When he suspects girl-next-door Christina (Maddie Ziegler) is being abused by her step-dad (Dean Norris), he comes up with a plan to take action, all documented in a beautiful hand-drawn book.
How do you follow up the fourth highest grossing film of all time? If you are Colin Trevorrow, you go from Jurassic World, a T-rex-sized blockbuster, to The Book Of Henry, a compy-scaled, intimate drama that builds to become a raptor-styled suspense thriller. Trevorrow started small – his debut Safety Not Guaranteed was a Sundance break-out – and he might have done better to cleave closer to his roots. Written by comic book writer Gregg Hurwitz, The Book Of Henry works better when it focus on people over plot – by the time it takes a bizarre move into a mum-with-a-gun vigilante flick, things are off the rails.
The first, more successful half is a family drama. Trevorrow sketches a Spielbergverse – kids, bikes, hoodies, absent dads — in quick engaging strokes and builds interesting believable characters. Henry (Lieberher) is an 11-year-old child prodigy who in a school show-and-tell talks about staving off existential crisis and prefers the description “precocious” to “pretentious”. He is the man of his house, running the family finances (he is a whizz with stocks and shares), amusing his younger brother Peter (Room’s Tremblay) with elaborate contraptions in a dream treehouse and too shy to speak to quiet, ballet dancing girl-next-door Christina (Ziegler). In a nice twist, mom Susan (Watts) is the child, playing ultra-violent video games, encouraging her eldest to pick up a bad habit and getting drunk with waitress pal Sheila (Sarah Silverman).
It’s a slow, possibly patience-testing burn. Nothing big happens but the film is all the better for it. There is a believable cute-but-not-cutesy energy to the family’s interactions and it’s easy to care for the trio. The sliver of story emerges with Henry’s concern that Christina is being physically abused by her father Mr Sickleman (Breaking Bad’s Norris) and details a plan to ‘save’ her in his red book. It’s here Hurwitz’s script falters, throwing in convenient conflicts (Sickleman’s police commissioner status ensures he is beyond reproach), becoming story driven rather than character-led.
At the halfway point The Book Of Henry takes a sharp left turn (no spoilers) that changes the tenor of the film and contributes a huge part of the film’s impact. Subsequently, the film escalates into a Rear Window-style thriller, in which Susan, in cahoots with Henry, begins to carry out a convoluted plan to take out Mr Sickleman. Even after the game-changing ‘surprise’, it never rings true she would consider this unsubstantiated, cockamamie scheme so blindly. Even more problematic, Trevorrow lands on an overwrought tone – amped up by Watts’ performance – that would have felt OTT in a nineties DTV outing. It’s trashy fun but undoes the good work that preceded it.
As he proved with Jurassic World, Trevorrow is adept at dealing with young actors. Tremblay is cute as a button, yet top of the class is Lieberher, previously seen opposite Bill Murray in St. Vincent who absolutely convinces as a young Brainiac, but never to a point that it’s alienating. And Trevorrow handles character dynamics with care, lands grace notes of humour and directs with a clean assured visual style. There’s a lot here that will generate confidence for his next project — a small film known as Episode IX.
After a gentle engaging start, The Book Of Henry makes an ill-judged move into thriller territory. But the performances, especially from Jaeden Lieberher, are strong and it delivers that rare cinematic treat: a real surprise.