Friday, June 16, 2017

The Book of Henry: A fascinating read

The Book of Henry (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity and fleeting profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.16.17

Films don’t surprise me much any more.

This one did.

The Book of Henry is a captivating convergence of premise, cast and execution: a beguiling “little” drama filled with big ideas, carefully shepherded by a director and writer who maintain unerring control throughout.

While Mom's away, the boys will play: Armed with a vacuum cleaner, toilet plungers,
goggles and gallons of packing "peanuts," Henry (Jaeden Lieberher, left) does his best
to put a smile on the face of younger brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay).
Trust is in short supply these days, from all sorts of quarters. It seems like people and things too frequently disappoint us, and that’s equally true of films that betray our faith and intelligence. Not so The Book of Henry. Barely half an hour in, it became clear that scripter Gregg Hurwitz wasn’t going to miss a step with his enchanting narrative, and that director Colin Trevorrow’s guiding hand would monitor all the elements with the precision of the Rube Goldberg-esque contraptions concocted by the story’s title character.

In short, I gave my trust to Hurwitz and Trevorrow, and they didn’t let me down.

Eleven-year-old Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) shares a bedroom with his younger brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay) in a pastoral suburban town in upstate New York. Their mother Susan (Naomi Watts), a single parent, toils as a waitress at a tiny diner, alongside co-waitress and feisty family friend Sheila (Sarah Silverman).

Susan is forgetful, immature and only mildly educated: still stuck in post-adolescence, all these years later, and more big sister than parent. The preternaturally serious Henry, in stark contrast, has the family well in hand; he’s charismatic, shrewdly intuitive and super-smart. (He prefers the term “precocious.”)

On a typical weekday evening, Susan spends hours playing video games; Henry sits quietly at a table, paying all the bills and keeping an eye on the stock market.

He also keeps an eye on Christina (Maddie Ziegler), the girl next door who sits at an adjacent desk in his classroom. Normally a friendly, cheerful lass, of late she has grown quiet and withdrawn, frequently half-concealing her face beneath her hair. Her step-father Glenn (Dean Norris) — also a single parent, and the local police chief — seems ... well ... tightly wound.

All three kids are creative. Christina dances; Henry and Peter spend lots of time in their tree house, in the woods behind their home. This kids’ heaven has been assembled from all manner of found materials — no doubt engineered by Henry — and filled with toys, gadgets and discarded junk waiting to be transformed into something spectacular. Best touch: the tree house entrance is a re-purposed refrigerator door, complete with bottles held within its shelves.

Henry worries. Constantly. He wishes that his mother paid more attention to their finances. He wishes that Peter could better defend himself against playground bullies. He wishes that Sheila didn’t drink so much.

He wishes that the school principal (Tonya Pinkins) paid more attention to his belief that something is wrong in Glenn and Christina’s house.

But at the end of the day, Henry’s breathtaking intelligence and perspicacity notwithstanding, he’s “only” a child. Adults don’t listen to 11-year-olds. (The fact that Susan does, speaks volumes about her.)

And, so, Henry takes alternative measures.

My vagueness is intentional; this film’s “sense of discovery” is akin to what I remember from the first screening of 1998’s The Truman Show, which — similarly — was equal parts dazzling, unpredictable and supremely satisfying. Revealing anything further about The Book of Henry would be criminal.

Lieberher is well remembered from his big-screen debut in 2014’s St. Vincent, where he held his own against the cheerfully irascible Bill Murray. Here, Lieberher’s Henry is both heroic and tragic. On the one hand, he delights in the busy whirlwind of his own mind, and his buoyant energy is contagious: not merely for his adoring younger brother, but also for us. We can’t help being enchanted.

On the other hand, Henry frequently displays the weary, resigned expression of a kid denied his childhood, and forced — far too soon — to confront adult responsibilities. Lieberher radiates a palpable sense of urgency and impatience, as if wishing that he could bestow his level of responsibility on adults who (in his view) could use more of it.

Tremblay similarly etched himself on all who saw his big-screen debut as the little boy stuck with Brie Larson, in 2015’s Room. Few young actors radiate his magnitude of expectation, vulnerability and wide-eyed sensitivity. His Peter is the personification of every kid who wakes eagerly each morning: expecting the day to bring fresh surprises, crushed if nothing special comes to pass. His tremulous voice, when disappointed, makes us grieve.

Ziegler is similarly heartbreaking, albeit in an entirely different way. The inhibited Christina glows like a sunrise in Susan’s presence, experiencing fleeting moments of the joyful mother/daughter bond they both might have had in a parallel universe. Frequent mention is made of the dance that Christina is preparing, for the upcoming school talent show; that performance, when it comes, is a burst of true cinematic magic ... and a scene you’ll not soon forget.

Watts, always an actress of impressive range, covers a wide swath of emotional territory during the course of this story. We pity and sympathize with Susan, just as she similarly exasperates us; it’s hard to avoid reaching into the screen, and slapping some sense into the woman. At the same time, Watts ensures that we never doubt — not even for a second — the strength of her maternal bond.

She’s at her best during the quiet, quirky little intimacies that characterize families, and which Hurwitz captures so unerringly: pet names, bedtime rituals, well-intentioned acts of spontaneity that often backfire.

Silverman is a hoot as the crass Sheila, proud of her ability to remain in Henry’s long-suffering cross-hairs. (She calls him “Hank.” He hates it.) Norris makes Glenn quietly threatening — somehow off-kilter — without doing anything overt; it’s a tantalizing, subtle performance.

Lee Pace is terrific in a compassionate supporting role.

This film’s other standout performance comes from its script: a narrative crafted cunningly by Hurwitz, a best-selling writer known equally well by readers of comic books and crime/thriller/espionage fiction (most recently his Orphan X series, not to be confused with TV’s Orphan Black). I’m starting to wonder if there’s anything Hurwitz can’t write, because the delicacy achieved by this script is worlds removed from the high-octane, page-turning thrills of his newest best-seller, Nowhere Man.

Trevorrow, in turn, honors Hurwitz’s tone with a similarly restrained touch. This is a smart film that respects its audience, conveying details through suggestion, inference and off-camera subtlety, and expecting us to keep up. Which we do, willingly and attentively.

The Book of Henry probably won’t have the crowd-pleasing legs of other small-film surprises such as Little Miss Sunshine, although it’ll similarly reward repeat viewing. That said, given the dissatisfying train wreck of The Mummy, folks may be in the mood for something different: something full of heart, and moral imperatives, and life-changing lessons.

C’mon. When’s the last time you were truly surprised by a film?

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