4.5 out of 10
Naomi Watts as Susan Carpenter
Jaeden Lieberher as Henry Carpenter
Jacob Tremblay as Peter Carpenter
Sarah Silverman as Sheila
Dean Norris as Glenn Sickleman
Lee Pace as Dr. David Daniels
Maddie Ziegler as Christina
Tonya Pinkins as Principal Wilder
Bobby Moynihan as John
Geraldine Hughes as Mrs. Evans
Maxwell Simkins as Tommy
Nicoll as Morris
Donnetta Lavinia Grays as Nurse Leah
Joel Marsh Garland as Big Ed
Wass Stevens as Gary
Directed by Colin Trevorrow
On the surface, Henry Carpenter seems like an average 11-year old. He lives with his single mother Susan and his younger brother Peter. He goes to public school, loves to tinker with gadgets in his treehouse, and has a crush on his next-door neighbor Christina. But Henry is also extraordinarily gifted and wise beyond his years. He’s a boy genius who runs his household while his mother is the immature free spirit. Despite this, he is happy.
But when Henry discovers that Christina’s stepfather is abusing her, he tries to intervene. He tells his principal. He calls Child Protective Services. He calls anonymous tip lines. Unfortunately, no action is taken. Matters are made worse by the fact that the stepfather, Glenn Sickleman, is a well-connected police officer.
Running out of every other option, Henry takes matters into his own hands in order to save Christina. But he’ll need the help of his mother and younger brother to execute his plan.
The Book of Henry is rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language.
The Book of Henry has one thing really going for it – the phenomenal cast. Naomi Watts is always a favorite of mine and she does an excellent job as Susan Carpenter. The character is immature and irresponsible, but Watts still manages to make her likable. Jaeden Lieberher is also impressive as Henry Carpenter. We often see kids in films portrayed as geniuses, but Jaeden is believable in the role as he delivers line after line with a lot of maturity. Jacob Tremblay will also tear out your heart and stomp on it during the emotional scenes as Peter Carpenter. The rest of the supporting cast is also excellent. Dean Norris from Breaking Bad makes a greater villain as Glenn Sickleman, Lee Pace has a minor yet memorable role as Dr. David Daniels, and Sarah Silverman adds some much-needed comic relief as Sheila.
This film is all over the place as far as content and tone. And to fully address it, I have to talk about spoilers, so bail out now if you want to avoid them.
First off, the film goes out of its way to portray Henry Carpenter as a super genius. So when you see he’s devising a plan to save Christina from her abusive stepfather, you expect it to be exceptionally clever. It’s not. His grand plan is to talk his mother into shooting Glenn with an illegally-bought rifle, then throw it in a lake. That is the grand plan? Helping your mother commit murder? And if you start looking at the details of his plan, you start realizing that there are tons of ways his mother wouldn’t get away with it. It’s just poorly, poorly written.
Second, the main message of the film is that if a child witnesses sexual abuse, then teachers, police, and the authorities will not help them. In fact, it’s better to commit murder than to trust any of them. I think that’s a very, very irresponsible message to send to anyone watching this film, especially kids.
Then a central plot point of the film is sexual abuse of a child. I did not think this film handled the subject matter in a respectful way. It was simply there as motivation for Henry to devise a grand plan. It was only used for entertainment, not in some socially responsible matter. Because of that, I found it distasteful.
Then the tone is just all over the map. One minute there’s quirky music and lighthearted moments between Henry and his family. The next minute Susan is packing a sniper rifle with her son’s voice in her ear coaching her to commit murder. It’s like riding in a car with someone who only has a vague idea of where they’re going. They turn one way, then another, then another with no clear goal in mind.
I went into this film knowing almost nothing about it. I only knew it was directed by Colin Trevorrow, who directed Jurassic World and will be directing Star Wars: Episode IX. But as a Star Wars fan, that alone was enough to get me in the theater. After seeing The Book of Henry, I not only felt I had wasted several hours of my life, but it made me concerned for the next Star Wars movie.
The Book of Henry is not worth going out of your way to see. It may be worth watching when it appears on television just to see the performances and to get a sampling of Colin Trevorrow’s filmography. But if you skip it entirely, you’re not missing anything.