And yet it never feels as though the movie is struggling to find its core, knowing full well where this train is going even when we don’t. I see so many films that always place themselves on a predictable track and hit the expected beats, which is why it’s such a joy to finally see a film that is brimming with surprises of all colors.
The story begins innocently enough with the highly intelligent and inventive Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) delivering a book report far too existential for an 11-year-old. The only reason he’s in a public school and not a more gifted program is for the benefit of being social around more normal kids. It’s hard to blend in when you spend your lunch hour trading stocks, but he’s trying to make an effort.
At home, Henry’s time is divided up between assembling all sorts of neat gadgets in his elaborately designed treehouse and going over the household expenses. Isn’t that the job of the parents? Dad is out of the picture and Henry’s mother Susan, played by the always-versatile Naomi Watts, isn’t much of a mom for such a smart kid. She’s not neglectful or unloving; she’d just rather play video games while Henry figures out the bills.
Life seems perfect for this family where Henry builds all sorts of neat inventions with his little brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay) and mom’s bedtime routine involves her self-written stories and songs. All is not well nextdoor, however, as Henry’s love interest Christina (Maddie Ziegler) is secretly beaten by her single stepfather Glen (Dean Norris). Not content to sit by and do nothing, Henry takes it upon himself to save her through proper channels. No luck on this front as Glen is such a revered member of the community that child protective services and the police are useless. This leads Henry to set his own plans in motion for rescuing the sweet Christina from another night of violence.
But Henry’s genius cannot go far as a brain tumor cuts his life short. As a sort of final request, he leaves his mother a red book with detailed instructions on how to save Christina. The short answer: Kill Glen. This is absurd, but the more Susan lays out her options, she comes to agree with Henry’s decision. She’s always been dependent on his lead after all, not having been much of a mother herself. But can she really kill for her son?
With so many wicked twists, The Book of Henry could have easily spun out of control into a chaotic movie that bounces around genres and tones at random. And, yet, it surprisingly manages to maintain its core of family drama for a film with child abuse, tearful death and a gun-toting mom.
What helps keep the film planted amid its confounding nature is the underlying theme of characters that fear they’re not quite there. Henry becomes so enraptured with saving Christina and sorting out finances before his passing that he forgets how comforting it is to be a kid before his untimely demise. Peter harbors frustrating thoughts of trying to carry on his brother’s legacy, fearing he won’t be the glue that kept mom stable. And Susan has the all-too-understandable anxiety of not being the right mother, frightened and paralyzed to move forward as the matriarch she must become.