In Defense of The Book of Henry
Written by Sarah W.
To clear this up from the start- Colin Trevorrow’s The Book of Henry is a bad movie. Not that it doesn’t try to be a great one, however. It’s exactly the kind of failure we need to see more of, one where everyone involved tries their hardest to sell its unbelievable disaster of a premise.
In short (also, spoiler warning!!!), The Book of Henry is the story of a mother who attempts to fulfill the final wish of her dead child prodigy son to kill their neighbor that the two suspect of child abuse. It features child services murdering a man in cold blood, Naomi Watts playing ukulele for an extended period of time (yes, it is possible for a movie featuring that to be bad), America’s sweetheart Jacob Tremblay helping plan a murder, a love triangle between an 11 year old, Sarah Silverman, and the kids mother, and most painfully, a sniper chase intercut with a children’s talent show. Unlike other spectacular failures (Tommy Wiseau’s The Room comes to mind), this was made with A-list actors, a large studio budget, and helmed by a director who had scheduled upcoming releases in two of the largest franchises of our time. It’s a mistake that begs to be studied, yet a triumph in its zeal for individuality.
It’s hard to tell exactly where it all goes wrong. It all begins as a decently directed, overtly quirky family drama, somewhat on par with the likes of Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck or Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, two auteurs attempts at making a family film that cater much more to the parents than the kids. It all takes a turn for the worse when it attempts to discuss the normalization of abuse, then quickly veers into a story about childhood cancer in order to kill off its titular character. The film isn’t quite off the rails yet until Sarah Silverman’s character confesses her love to 11 year old Henry, and kisses him on the lips as he waits to die in the hospital. Silverman’s character seemingly is only there to set up a love triangle between Henry and Susan (Naomi Watts) (I can’t be the only one who noticed that at the beginning, right?). At this point, the whole thing still seems like a particularly odd family film; it’s not until Naomi Watts utters a solitary ‘fuck’ that the film makes it clear that it’s trying to be a movie for adults.
And the sniper rifle isn't even out yet! The rest of the film unfolds as a typical revenge thriller, the plan narrated to Susan through recordings made by her dead son. Yes, you heard that right; she’s following her child’s murder plans. The climactic shooting sequence is intercut with increasingly awkward elementary school talent show performances, including one where a young boy spreads his dead brother’s ashes over a cheering crowd. The sequence ends with the girl who’s only defining trait so far has been the abuse happening to her performing an interpretive dance as Susan philosophizes on the nature of childhood, and stops Henry’s plan, only for child protective services to kill the neighbor for her. Definitely not the quirky, well-acted family drama it set itself up to be, but something more. It’s a lesson in our reluctance to see something different.
Not only is it one of the most tonally-alarming creations possible, but it serves as a perfect lesson in the disappearance of original films. When was the last time you saw an original family drama at the local multiplex? The Book of Henry got its wide-release largely due to its blockbuster director, but it is one of the few films of its kind that has been distributed in a way accessible to the masses. No matter how bad, it’s certainly original, and beyond entertaining in its sheer unpredictability. It’s a sign that Hollywood still has room for individual films, and a sign that it’s still possible for a film to strikeout, but at fault of something other than its similarity to everything else in theaters. “We are not killing the police commissioner, and that’s final!” is the kind of line we need to be able to chuckle at in theaters during a glorious strikeout, and I fully support getting more original films back in theaters, especially the failures.