“The Book of Henry” is much deeper in meaning and in spirit that most movie critics are willing to acknowledge. It is a movie that critics hate and audiences love. I found it to be a spell-binder. The film is about a single mother, Susan Carpenter (Naomi Watts), attempting to raise two sons. Eleven-year-old Henry Carpenter (Jaeden Lieberher) is an off-the-charts genius who manages the family finances, makes many adult decisions and looks after his younger brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay – “Room”), partly out of necessity because mom is an incompetent flake. While this is a movie about and starring children, it is also an adult coming-of-age movie. Henry is our immediate focus as he acts as the parent in this story because his mother Susan has yet to grow up. It is Henry who finally forces his mother to accept and embrace adulthood and responsibility.
As for Susan, her burning desire is to illustrate and write children’s books, but she is so uncertain of her own abilities as an adult, let alone a writer and artist, that she works as a waitress in a neighborhood cafe and drives around in an old heap that is barely hanging together. She is perpetually late picking up her children from school and spends her leisure playing interactive video games. She will never be nominated for Mother of the Year. But there is something endearing about her in the way she befriends her fellow waitress Sheila (Sarah Silverman) and reads to her children at bedtime every night with an affection that is reminiscent of what is aspirational in all parents. Yet part of her emotional growth is stilted because Henry is so masterful in all matters of organizing a life and running a household. He totally manages the family finances and cannot get Susan even to look at a financial statement. It is Henry who is on the phone with brokers tweaking the family’s financial portfolio. It is also Henry who uses all the traditional avenues to try to find justice and asylum for his neighbor.
Henry spends much of his time in an eclectic tree house where he works on Rube Goldberg-type inventions. He and his brother Peter communicate by walkie- talkies even when standing next to each other. It is Henry’s decision to remain in a regular neighborhood classroom because he believes he should interact socially with his peers rather than be isolated in a school for geniuses. He also has an obvious crush on the girl next door, Christina Sickleman (Maddie Ziegler), who lives with her stepfather Glenn Sickleman (Dean Norris), the local chief of police. Christina shows all the symptoms of abuse at the hands of her stepfather, and Henry is determined to put an end to it. But Chief Sickleman is surrounded by people who are either related to him or are fearful of his influence.
There are some sad moments in this movie which I do not believe rise to the level of being labeled a “tear-jerker” as some critics have alleged. The sad moments are the jumping off place for the inevitable growth of Susan into adulthood, the affirmation of Peter as a person of confidence, and an answer to the plight of the neighbor Christina. Other critics are angry because they did not see the ending coming – yet I am certain if they had seen the ending coming they would have criticized it for being predictable. And, finally, Roger Ebert was upset because he felt this movie was a formulaic throw-back to earlier films, as if the only good movie with a kids’ cast was “E.T.” Ebert never even reviewed “LaLaLand” – which I also loved in spite of its regeneration of the old Hollywood musical genre – including “Singing in the Rain.” To my way of thinking, watching a movie is about the experience of seeing something for the first time. Hopefully, it is fresh and entertaining – sometimes, enlightening. I believe this film hit upon all three.
The acting is excellent. Watts is totally believable in all her iterations of parenthood. The performances of Tremblay and Lieberher are so engaging it is almost disappointing when they are not at center screen. And although Silverman has taken a lot of criticism as a stand-up comedian, she is very likeable as Susan’s alcoholic-leaning, tattooed best friend. There are wonderful moments of humor in this movie. My favorite is when Henry is determined to make his little brother laugh by casting himself as a mountain climber in a blizzard – that’s where the aviator’s cap and goggles come in. And we will all be quoting how Henry observed that there are worse things than violence – namely, apathy.
This movie is not big on hype or budget, but it offers big entertainment for anyone willing to immerse him/herself in the movie experience and to wait to find out how the story gently unfolds and the actors skillfully play their parts.