Colin Trevorrow has had a zany past few years. In 2012, he directed Safety Not Guaranteed, a strange little film that found unlikely, massive success streaming on Netflix following a limited theatrical run; his follow-up would be, improbably, Jurassic World, one of the highest grossing movies of all-time. His name is just one on the growing list of indie darlings-turned blockbuster maestros, but his rising star’s trajectory has just taken a curious turn with his latest feature, The Book of Henry, a genre-defying, twisty, oft-illogical suburban drama whose conception steers miles clear of convention but boasts the cast and production value of a major Hollywood picture. This thing is bizarre from top to bottom, and while some moments are so bafflingly silly you’ll wonder how the project got the green light, others are so out of left field and genuinely surprising that you’ll wonder why we don’t see more wacky stuff like this in mainstream movies.
Out-there as it is, the movie’s wild side isn’t revealed completely until its second half. Before things get weird, the story actually appears quite ordinary at the outset. Henry (Jaeden Lieberher, Midnight Special) is a bona fide 11-year-old genius (he prefers “precocious”) living in the suburbs with his mom, Susan (Naomi Watts), and younger brother, Peter (Jacob Tremblay, Room). As brilliant and compassionate as he is, Henry is the center of gravity for the family, looking out for Peter at school and taking on many of Susan’s adult responsibilities, like handling family finances. His capabilities and vocabulary heavily outsize his pre-teen frame, but he’s still got boyish tendencies, building fun Rube Goldberg machines in his self-built treehouse and nervously ogling the doe-eyed girl next door, Christina (Maddie Ziegler).
There isn’t much that rattles Henry. He’s smarter than all of his teachers and has a better grasp on social interaction than most adults. His poise is seriously shaken, however, when his suspicions that Christina’s step dad, Glenn (Dean Norris), has been physically abusing her are all but confirmed (bruises, a constant lack of appetite). After a failed attempt to convince the school principal to contact the authorities, he starts doing some kid-detective work and carefully laying out an elaborate, zany plan to save Christina from her captor (her mom’s passed, leaving Glenn as her guardian). It’s at this point that the movie goes off the rails, spiralling into a psychological thriller with jaw-dropping twists and turns that shatter all notions of predictability.
It’s this second half of the movie that will turn some people off with its breakneck tonal flip-flops, head-scratching plot developments, and a jarring leap from G-rated family vibes to moments of R-rated melodrama. But for those willing to stay onboard Trevorrow’s crazy train, the sense of disorder and unpredictability is actually sort of exhilarating.
The first half of the story, with its Spielberg-esque suburban milieu and adorable brotherly antics, establishes a certain set of expectations in the mind of anyone who’s seen any reasonable amount of movies in their lifetime. You think, “this is a heartwarming family drama about a special kid with special feelings.” But then, the movie’s true nature starts to creep in, like when Henry says to his mom, “Violence isn’t the worst thing in the world.” With almost childlike curiosity, she responds, “What is?” to which he answers with off-putting frankness, “Apathy.”
Delving into the plot details of the movie’s second half would spoil too much, but what I can say is that, cinematically, it’s executed deftly by Trevorrow and co. The film’s climax is particularly well constructed, with a nocturnal act of violence inventively cut in parallel with a school talent show to ratchet up the suspense. While the plot constantly goes off the rails, the visual storytelling stays composed and assured throughout, which, along with the actors, is the movie’s saving grace.
Lieberher takes a role that should have been grating and makes it feel grounded, eschewing sentimentality and focusing on Henry’s composure and pragmatism. Tremblay is terrific in the role of confidant, and Watts powers through her occasionally cringe-y dialogue like a true pro. The Book of Henry is a hair away from being in league with the most ludicrous Lifetime original movies, but its cast, slick production, and Trevorrow’s willingness to take risks make it an oddball chunk of entertainment you’ll be sure to tell your friends about, whether you liked, loved, or loathed it.
The Book of Henry is a hair away from being in league with the most ludicrous Lifetime original movies, but its cast, slick production and Trevorrow’s willingness to take risks make it an oddball chunk of entertainment you’ll be sure to tell your friends about, whether you liked, loved or loathed it.