Film Review: The Book of Henry

by Gordon Elgart on June 16, 2017

Several different movies, crashing together; in other words, it’s a multi-car pile-up

                                    The Book of Henry is not a Wes Anderson movie.

What if veteran comic book writer Gregg Hurwitz wrote a superhero origin story about a single mom, combined it with a treacly family drama about a cancer-stricken kid, and crossed that with a darkly comedic satire about cinematic depictions of gifted children? Well, you don’t have to guess what if, because this movie is playing in movie theaters now, although I’m guessing not for long. It may, however, play forever in the rotation of classic film fiascos. 

I’ll start with a quick note about spoilers. It is absolutely impossible to talk about this movie without talking about what happens in this movie, so I’m going deep here. I will definitely be revealing the main plot point that the trailer hid, because it’s the main inciting incident of the film, and to leave it out would make this review end in the paragraph above.

The movie begins with our POV character being Henry Carpenter, an 11-year-old student at Cavalry Elementary School who’s incredibly advanced. (Get it? Carpenter? Cavalry? I bet you know where this one is going.) He knows everything about everything, has investments worth well over a million dollars, and has quirky conversations with adults to prove that he’s one of them. His mother Susan (Naomi Watts) counts on him to be the adult in the family because she’s busy being a waitress in a local diner where she’s drinking buddies with Sheila (Sarah Silverman) and raising her younger son Peter (Jacob Tremblay). 

Eventually, Henry figures out that the girl next door, Christina, on whom he has a crush, is being abused by her stepfather (Dean Norris), who also happens to be the police commissioner. He hatches a plan to save her but is foiled by the fact that the head of Child Protective Services happens to be the commissioner’s brother! Oh no! So he does what any gifted 11-year-old would do: he hatches a plot to kill his next door neighbor.

Unfortunately, before he has a chance to complete his plan, he gets brain cancer and dies.

This is when the movie shifts from “comedic romp about a gifted child” to “tearful family melodrama” for, oh, about ten minutes. Then Peter tells his mom, now our POV character, that Henry left behind a notebook, and his dying wish was for her to read it. So she reads it, and in it he asks his mom to kill the neighbor. Being a dutiful mother who wants to grant her son his dying wish, she picks up the plot to kill him.

She needs a little help in this, and she finds it in a freakishly long microcassette that Henry left behind where he talks her through important tasks. It’s so funny when he tells her stuff, and then she reacts, and he reacts to her reaction from beyond the grave. What a brilliant kid this was; he could predict the future! We’re back to the quirky comedy stuff — but wait, there’s this whole business of killing the neighbor and saving the girl next door who no one believes is being abused until she does a dance at the talent show (the highest production value ever seen in an elementary school talent show) and cries, so everyone knows she’s being abused, and is stirred to action to help her.

There’s a bit more to the plot here, and I’ll save a little something for you in case you decide to give this one a shot. Hey, that would be fine. I’m not sorry I saw this. Every once in a while, you need to see what’s inside the insane mind of the filmmaker, Colin Trevorrow, who’s about to make the next film in your all-time favorite film franchise (Star Wars), just so you can root for his role to be diminished. There’s nothing here than suggests he knows about tone, or understands what kind of film he is making.

The cast is so excellent here, it’s a shame it’s wasted. Any one of the three movies that could have been made might have worked. My personal favorite is the superhero origin story thread, which would see a single mom have to take on the heroic mantle of her son to continue his fight for justice; I’d watch that movie if it had been produced from the existing script with the needed stylistic approach for that type of film. In fact, the first comment I made about this movie was that the only thing missing was a post-credits sequence where Samuel L. Jackson invites Naomi Watts to join the Avengers. 

The Book of Henry is a total mess, but it’s not quite as insane as you’ve been led to believe. Truly, the most unbelievable thing in the movie is that there are only two bedrooms in that house. It’s perfect for How Did This Get Made?, The Flop House, or best of all, a night with friends making fun of it. 


The Book of Henry opens in select Bay Area theaters today. The famously insane trailer is below. 


Gordon Elgart

A music nerd who probably uses that term too much. I have a deep love for bombastic, quirky and dynamic music.

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