Tonally deaf and totally bizarre, The Book of Henry packs a gluttony of incongruous story threads into a salad bowl full of melodrama. It’s a beautiful shambles of precocious child-genius-with-cancer-melodrama-with-child-abuse-revenge-thriller. It’s all played completely straight for sentiment in a world in which a mum (Naomi Watts) adorably(?) treats her son like a husband, yet paedophiles appear to constantly lurk behind corners, making it awfully hard to keep up with who is being creepy and who is being “adorable”. It is an uncomfortable enough position for the audience to keep up with, whilst the film pushes forward with sickly sweet melodrama and one child’s unusually violent dying wish which keeps the family happily together.
Star Wars fans will be concerned that Episode IX director Colin Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed, Jurassic World) made the bold decision to resurrect and direct this happily forgotten 20-year-old script. It makes so many jarring shifts in tone, pouring sugar on pasta and salt in the coffee. It’s a wonder that Naomi Watts manages to put in a stoic enough performance that she escapes without disaster, despite playing a mother who attempts to carry out a murder planned by her nauseatingly precocious 11 year-old-son Henry (Jaeden Lieberher), from beyond the grave. Jacob Tremblay adds some semblance of an anchor to the film as the family’s younger son, providing the only sense of normalcy whilst simultaneously pouring yet more adorableness over a dustbin fire of bad taste.
The older, more murderous son Henry, is the kind of 11 year-old child genius who is full of preciously obnoxious quips, in between calls to his stockbroker. It’s played for cuteness but feels repulsive, although to its credit the film throws in the odd successful gag, such as the mother’s fondness for violent video games and Henry’s odd and awkward relationship with his mum’s best friend (Sarah Silverman), a nicely played touch which unfortunately implodes spectacularly when the woman kisses the death-bed-bound boy on the lips. Creepy. But the film plays it for adorableness, so that’s ok then.
Never dull, The Book of Henry is a glorious mess, of child-planned violence mixed into sweeping family sentiment and bizarre attempts to find catharsis. It’s destined for cult audiences to endlessly discuss and argue over down the years. So what WAS up with that neurosurgeon? Could a cancer stricken 11 year old really escape his hospital bed night-after-night and plot a murder with THAT level of precision? Can there please be a sequel?
Review by David Rank
The Book of Henry is out on 23rd June in the UK and out now in the US. Certificate 12A (UK). Running time: 105 mins.