The Book of Henry
IQ points only take you so far.
Just ask Henry Carpenter, who has plenty of 'em. The 11-year-old breezes through elementary school like suds in laundry water, collecting science medals like lint. When he goes home, he gets to work on the family finances—paying the bills, analyzing investments and stuffing the proceeds into a burgeoning bank account. If Henry has a little spare time, he'll hike to his playhouse and tinker with his latest Rube Goldberg-like invention—something to toast a waffle, perhaps, or frost a cupcake.
But for all of Henry's smarts, he can't convince his mom, Susan, to quit her waitressing gig or at least buy a new car—even though they've got plenty of money. He can't always protect his little brother, Peter, from the occasional bully. He can't seem to get rid of his bothersome headaches—headaches that seem to be getting worse.
And most depressingly, he can't seem to help Christina, his pretty next-door neighbor. Because boy, does she need help.
Christina won't talk about it. She barely talks at all. But Henry knows what's happening. He's seen it, through the window: Christina playing in her room when her stepfather walks in. He's seen what happens next. What always happens.
And the next day, Henry sees the bruises.
Christina won't admit to anything, and Henry's too shy to press. But he's tried everything within the bounds of the law to stop the abuse, to rescue Christina from her evil stepfather: He's talked with the principal and social services. He called in an anonymous tip, which brought a child abuse investigator to Christina's front door.
That should have been enough, you'd think. And maybe in most cases, it is. But not in this one. You see, Christina's stepfather, Glen, is the police commissioner. And Glen's brother heads the child abuse response team. For all Henry's intelligence, he's just a kid. A fifth grader is no match for a police commissioner, no matter how smart the boy may be.
But Henry won't give up. When society's traditional safety systems fail him, he decides to devise his own solution—one with so many pieces and variables that Rube Goldberg himself might be proud of it. If Rube didn't mind the potentially bloody conclusion, that is.
Sometimes terrible problems demand terrible solutions, Henry believes. And he's determined to solve Christina's terrible problem permanently.
We can (and should) question Henry's "solution" to Christina's horrific situation. But let's acknowledge that Henry is, at least, looking for one.
The Book of Henry suggests that people often look the other way when they should get involved. When Henry sees a man angrily (and somewhat physically) confront a woman in a grocery store, he wants to help. But his mom, Susan, says no: Not our business, she says. Henry disagrees: "When someone hurts someone else, it is our business!" he says. And he's right.
Henry's up in lots of people's business—usually to their benefit. Henry becomes the de facto head of his household, taking control of the family finances and making sure his little brother, Peter, gets an apple or carrot in his lunch. He watches out for Peter at school, too, rescuing him from the clutches of the occasional bully. He cares deeply for the people in his life, and it shows.
[Spoiler warning] But what happens when Henry's not around? When Henry dies, both Susan and Peter are forced to figure out a path forward. Susan seems particularly lost without him. "I don't know how to be a mother," she admits. Susan was so used to looking to her son for answers that she doesn't seem to have any answers—or any confidence to look for them—without him. "Don't do what Henry would do," Peter tells her. "What would you do?" It's good advice, and Susan does eventually come into her own as a mother—still treasuring her memories of Henry while understanding that, for all his smarts, her kid was still a kid. And she's still a mother. So when Susan discovers her own path forward, she finds comfort and healing—not just for herself, but for others quite close to her.
Director Colin Trevorrow told comingsoon.net that the script for The Book of Henry "almost felt like an old Bible story to me," and it does indeed have a certain ethical heft. But the spiritual things we find here are only glimpsed at an angle.
The movie's title, obviously, is meant to echo how we refer to books of the Bible. But Henry doesn't have any clear idea of what the afterlife, if there is one, will look like. When Peter asks him where people go after they die, Henry says, "I don't know." And during a class presentation, he says that while the afterlife is uncertain, "I say we do the best we can while we're on this side of the dirt."
There's also talk of ghosts. One child—while performing a magic trick during a talent show—uses as its premise the idea of bringing someone else back to life. We briefly glimpse a "psychic consulting" sign. Someone sings "Amazing Grace" during a talent show.
The nature of Christina's abuse is never explicitly stated or shown, but it's obvious in context that Glen's sexually abusing his stepdaughter. From Henry's window, we see Christina in her room late at night, then turning toward the door when Glen (albeit an unseen Glen) enters the room. In another instance, the scene is repeated … only Christina looks away from the door, a look of despairing resignation on her face. In both instances, the camera cuts away and turns its focus toward the horrified onlooker.
Susan hangs out with Sheila, a waitress with a penchant for low-cut, cleavage-baring tops. The two talk about men, and Susan mentions that her husband left her. Elsewhere, a doctor shows some romantic inclinations toward Susan, but their relationship doesn't even progress to hand-holding by movie's end.
Henry admits to Sheila that he thinks she's pretty. Sheila kisses Henry on the lips.
Glen's abuse of Christina can be violent. Henry says that he knows about some occasional trips to the emergency room.
A boy wrestles Peter to the ground and tries to beat him up before Henry intervenes. The attacker calls Peter a "nothing." Another kid has his face shoved in some food. Peter gets knocked down on a bus. Peter worries that he might be attacked by sharks in the bathtub. "If anything indigenous to this region [attacks you]," Susan tells him, "I'll be in here in a flash."
An apparent hitman talks to a gun dealer about an under-the-table deal.
[Spoiler warning] One night, Henry starts convulsing. Susan races him to the hospital, where they all discover that he has an inoperable brain tumor. He dies in his mother's arms. But in a book he leaves behind, Henry asks mother Susan to carry out his complicated plan to kill Glen. She does not: Glen instead kills himself off-camera, with a small flash of light the only thing the audience sees.
Crude or Profane Language
"Don't swear in front of children," Henry scolds his mother. It's a chastisement we hear from both of the boys repeatedly, in fact—which gives you a fairly good indication how well Susan pays attention. (Henry's exhortation to his mother regarding her inappropriate language seems completely disconnected from his own expletive choices, however.)
We hear the f-word once and the s-word four times. God's name is misused four times, twice with the word "d--n." Jesus' name is abused three times. Characters utter other profanities, too, including "a--," "b--ch," "d--n" and "h---."
Drug and Alcohol Content
After a long day at the diner, Susan and Sheila go to Susan's house to "unwind" a bit. "They're going to get so drunk right now," Henry tells Peter. They do indeed drink quite a bit of wine that night.
One morning—perhaps the next morning—Susan takes the boys out to look for Sheila, who didn't show up for her shift. They find her sleeping on an outside bench, holding a bottle of wine. She convinces Susan to have a drink with her, which she does. (Sheila coos over how she's finally corrupting Susan, while Henry scolds Susan for enabling Sheila's alcoholism.)
Susan puts a cigarette in her mouth and is about to light it when Peter knocks it out. Glen seems to drink whiskey at his desk.
Other Negative Elements
Susan decides that she and Peter will just have dessert for a week—no fruits, no veggies, nothing but dessert. She makes good on her promise with one of his school lunches, which he eagerly trades for apples and bananas.
Susan jokingly encourages Henry to engage in a little irresponsibility, suggesting that he pick up gambling or drinking. Or perhaps he should rob a bank, she adds.
Henry can treat the adults around him fairly disrespectfully. He lies and misleads people, too, in order to further his plans. Susan does her share of lying as well—though sometimes it's merely banter with Sheila, fibbing over their fictionally fabulous lives. Sheila and Henry insult each other.
CONCLUSION "Violence isn't the worst thing in the world," Henry opines to his mother one evening.
"What is then?" she asks.
That's the message The Book of Henry embraces with vigor. Whatever shortfalls this movie may have, apathy is not among them. Indeed, it seems to commit to so many different stories and messages at once that it can be difficult to keep up with them all.
I loved Henry's courage in turning away from apathy and trying to rescue his neighbor from her evil stepfather. I really appreciated his willingness to carry so many burdens on his thin shoulders. Even more, I loved the counter-intuitive message that comes later: the understanding that, for all of Henry's smarts and laudable sense of righteousness, he's still a kid. And you know what? Kids still need parents—loving, wise and engaged parents—to rein in their enthusiasm and even their best instincts and to direct them in the best way possible.
On these levels, the movie works. Too bad it doesn't on so many others.
The Book of Henry could've been a quirky, gentle comedy about an adult 11-year-old, a child-like mother and the odd-but-loving family they share. It could've been a dark-but-ultimately-uplifting story of how a boy and his mother tried to rescue a neighbor from sexual abuse (featuring an unexpected twist or two). It could've been a poignant, powerful rumination on loss and grief and, ultimately, what it means to go forward.
Instead, it tried to be all these things. The result looks like one of Susan's all-dessert lunches: Sweet and tasty, but a bit … much. Add to that some deeply discomforting thematic elements (such as an 11-year-old boy plotting a hit on his neighbor) and some rather bitter language (including a trio of abuses of Jesus' name), and you have a complicated dish indeed.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Naomi Watts as Susan Carpenter; Jaeden Lieberher as Henry Carpenter; Jacob Tremblay as Peter Carpenter; Sarah Silverman as Sheila; Dean Norris as Glenn Sickleman; Lee Pace as Dr. David Daniels; Maddie Ziegler as Christina; Tonya Pinkins as Principal Wilder
Colin Trevorrow ( Jurassic World)
June 16, 2017