Thom Hethertington reviews Colin Trevorrow’s incredibly divisive family drama…
Colin Trevorrow is one smart cookie. There: I said it. That The Book of Henry has been met with the vitriol it has makes absolutely zero sense. In fact, it makes less than zero sense. It makes minus sense. To pick a scene from Trevorrow’s own filmography, this film has been subjected to the kind of traumatic mauling that befalls Zara, the nanny in Jurassic World (a deliciously horrific scene in a film that, for what it’s worth, I think is lots of fun; smartly cynical and cleverly constructed whilst paying homage to the original). Many people seem to be using the film to mount a campaign against Trevorrow. A slew of sickening, desperate articles are calling for people to “save” Star Wars from him. No film can exist in a vacuum and it was hard not to watch The Book of Henry in bewilderment, not at its awfulness, but at the fact so many people decided to inexplicably give it such a thrashing to the face. So, taking the film as it presents itself…
The Book of Henry is an odd little duck of a film. It at once tackles child abuse, grief, loss, eleven-year-olds explaining how to get away with the perfect murder and Rube Goldberg machines, with a dash of zany indie sensibility thrown in for good measure. The film centres on eleven-year-old child genius Henry (Jaeden Leiberher) along with his mother Susan (Naomi Watts) and younger brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay). The film begins with Henry slowly uncovering the abuse inflicted on his neighbour Christina (Maddie Zeigler) at the hands of her step-father (Dean Norris), who happens to be the local police commissioner. To go any further would be to ruin The Book of Henry’s brilliantly bonkers twists and turns. What unfolds from thereon in is a film that jumps between genres at a constant rate, a film that surprises and confounds, but most crucially a film that takes the audience with it on this crazy journey.
The film isn’t tonally jarring, as many critics have suggested. Truthfully, it becomes a little distracting that the film’s somewhat whimsy tone stays so constant despite the various issues, genres, and emotional moments that it ends up tackling. It’s a testament to both Trevorrow and his cast that the film manages to retain the viewer’s sympathies throughout. And whilst the film is truly odd, in both the negative and positive senses of the word, it never shies away from its bizarreness. To suggest there is something maudlin and cynical about the film is merely to refuse to engage with it. To stand apart from it rather than take it on its own terms. It’s true that at times Greg Hurwitz’s script becomes a little button-pushing in its dialogue, but the film as a whole manages to ride this out and stay above it. And it’s a testament to Trevorrow’s storytelling that the film is incredibly moving. The film has, at times, a Spielbergian hue in the way it puts a family dynamic at the centre of a heightened reality. The film looks beautiful too: there’s a hand-drawn, oak-like feel to it, chiefly induced by the set and art design, and added to by John Schwartzman’s choice of shots (captured on film) and Michael Giacchino’s score (which is as eclectic and varied in style as the film is, going from acoustic to electronic to orchestral between tracks).
This is a film where, regardless of the bizarre circumstances they find themselves in, the characters remain tangible. The Book of Henry is not set in the same world as the one we live in, but the characters within it are still real. The way these characters react to the situations they are in fits with the tone Trevorrow has created and they feel authentic within the world of the film. The home life of Henry, Peter and Susan is a brilliantly realised topsy-turvy delight and, while it might be too kooky for some, it manages to feel more than real enough. It is a household of dysfunction but also one of love, and that’s a sentence that might just as easily be used to describe the film itself. Trevorrow’s investment in character is where this film’s true strength lies and it pulls the viewer through its more bizarre moments. The film gives them the time to breathe, to allow them all to interact with each other. The audience is left with a clear idea of how each character feels towards all the others. The minor, yet touching, relationship between Henry and Sarah Silverman’s Sheila is a particularly fine example of this.
The Book of Henry is, in retrospect, a hard film to classify and comprehend, but as a viewing experience and a story to enjoy it is very easy to fall into. It takes place in a world which is tonally and logically not like reality and while this may be hard to swallow (especially given the subject matter) if the viewer chooses to go with the film – rather than stand obstinately in its path – it is an incredibly rewarding experience. So I urge you to go and see it and let yourself be swept along.
The Book of Henry is out in UK cinemas now. See the trailer below: