Monday, 11 December 2017

Movie Review: The Book Of Henry (2017)



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The plot: Suburban kid Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) is a child genius, often making contraptions with his brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay) and balancing out his mother (Naomi Watts)’s budget. However, when he discovers that his next-door neighbour Christina (Maddie Ziegler) is being abused by her step-father (Dean Norris), he decides that something must be done, something that the adults seem unable to do because of the step-father’s standing in the community. He decides that there’s only one choice: The step-father has to die.





Lieberher continues to prove himself as a highly capable actor, balancing out his extreme precociousness with enough sincerity and genuine heart to make his highly advanced creativity feel natural to the character. Tremblay, another child actor who is only continuing to show his skills in the acting craft, is an ideal fit alongside Lieberher, giving the film a very solid emotional bedrock from which a lot of feels can spawn from. Watts, to put it simply, comes across as the exact kind of mother who would raise and have primary influence over kids this preternaturally aware of their surroundings. I can’t explain why exactly seeing her playing Gears Of War at certain points in the film filled me with such joy, but it certainly did that and gave a good precursor for how warm her presence in the film would be. Ziegler as Christina is quite heartbreaking to watch in form, as without a whole lot of dialogue to her name, she gets across the very dehumanizing situation she is in to harrowing effect. Same goes for Dean Norris as her step-father, who is just about as unsettling as a domestic abuser can get while also not saying much. Sarah Silverman brings a rather bizarre presence to the production, although one that has quite a bit of merit to it when put next to the main cast, Lee Pace as a doctor works out well, and Tonya Pinkins as the school principal… have to admit, her scene with Lieberher is incredibly effective because how much they talk at the same level.

Along with his rather clear intellect and matured language, the thing that makes Henry stick out is how protective he is of others. As he goes through his opening voiceover narration, he talks about how compassion and people looking out for each other is how the world should work. Later on, he gets into how violence is far from the worst thing a person can do, and that apathy is much worse. These are very adult ideas, both in concept and in their eventual execution, but because Lieberher sells the dialogue as well as he does, he makes them work when coming out of the mouth of a child. From that vantage point, he sees the abuse that goes on in his neighbourhood, the people helping to cover it up, and the victim who is left to deal with everything quietly. It carries a similar coda to Lieberher’s other big role from this year with It, in that the story is about how society is so complacent with how bad things are that it’s up to the next generation to, hopefully, put a stop to it. And with the absolutely fantastic chemistry between him, Tremblay and Watts, we also see what a functioning and loving household looks like, a heavy contrast to the fearful environment that Henry wants to stop.

However, how that want to stop the abuse manifests itself is very muddled. Like, to the point where this feels like two separate films spliced together at the middle. Once we get into the titular Book, the film takes a very sudden and jarring turn into something that the preceding hour managed to avoid: It descends into complete silliness. For a time, the film manages to juggle the fact that a child is having these very morbid and idealistic views quite well, aided by the incredible acting. But once it gets to implementing the plan, whatever sense of grounding we had before just vanishes. This means I have to get into *SPOILERS*. So, after Henry dies, it’s left to his mother to carry out his will… ugh. All of a sudden, the very Biblical-sounding title makes way too much sense. This is done through Henry leaving cassette tapes, notes and tightly-choreographed plans concerning killing the abusive step-father. If this sounds like Henry just became a Jigsaw apprentice, realize that we’re not even at the ridiculous part yet. So, Henry instructs his mother on how to go about killing Sickleman, including audio instructions on how to fire a sniper rifle where he ends up having conversations with his mother and predicting what she is going to say while listening to it. Henry goes from being incredibly clever into being a near-literal creature of magic, which makes the resulting final reel rather difficult to take seriously at face value.

All in all, this is just plain bizarre. It starts out on an exceptionally strong footing, with the excellent actors really getting across that not only are the events we’re seeing grounded in some form of reality, but that that reality is one that needs to be commented on. Given the growing sense of “it's up to the next generation to save us” I’ve been seeing out of Hollywood over the last several months and the abusive circles being unearthed in those same areas, it makes for a solid sentiment. But then it really loses its steam and descends into true disbelief-stretching that ends up making what should be a fulfilling climax land with a hollow thud. I’ll admit to being surprised that director Colin Trevorrow, the man responsible for the idiocy of Jurassic World, was able to make something that creates this complex a reaction, but as ambitious as it is, the end result still doesn’t add up. In any case, I’d still recommend checking it out, if only to see Jaeden Lieberher, Jacob Tremblay and Naomi Watts act the unholy hell out of this material.

It ranks higher than Yu-Gi-Oh!: The Dark Side Of Dimensions, and really, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise as to why. When this film works, it really friggin’ works; when that film worked, it was largely in spite of itself. However, even though this has a lot of things that objectively better, Geostorm was a lot more consistent in tone and, honestly, I can see myself watching it again for a fun viewing experience. This film is just too inconsistent for that to be a possibility, at least for right now.

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