Checked out: 1980s-inspired ‘BOOK OF HENRY’ deserves a library fine

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Preston Barta // Features Editor

THE BOOK OF HENRY
Rated PG-13, 105 minutes.
Director: Colin Trevorrow
Cast: Naomi Watts, Jaeden Lieberher, Jacob TremblaySarah SilvermanDean NorrisLee PaceMaddie Ziegler and Bobby Moynihan

Among cinema’s most beloved genres is the action-adventure film featuring kids front and center. Steven Spielberg and Amblin Entertainment pioneered the format in the ’80s with THE GOONIES and E.T., and STRANGER THINGS carries the torch today. As entertaining as those titles are, however, achieving that success doesn’t come as easy as having a plot with ambitious kids on bicycles or a child with Stephen Hawking’s IQ. Filmmakers have to challenge the genre for their films to do more than collect dust on the shelf.

Director Colin Trevorrow (JURASSIC WORLD, and the untitled ninth episode of STAR WARS) attempts to do so with his latest effort, THE BOOK OF HENRY. Unfortunately, while the film’s heart is in the right place, its head is stuck in the clouds and never quite comes back down to reality.

THE BOOK OF HENRY follows the titular Henry (Jaeden Lieberher of MIDNIGHT SPECIAL), a precocious 11-year-old who exercises his intelligence, protects his bullied little brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay of ROOM) and diversifies his family’s financial portfolio. His single mother, Susan (Naomi Watts), waits tables, plays video games and boozes with her BFF Sheila (a wasted Sarah Silverman).

Henry is a curious cat who loves to play boy detective, constantly scribbling notes in his red journal. It’s not until he notices the girl next door, Christina (Maddie Ziegler), that he goes full Encyclopedia Brown. Through a series of questionable moments, Henry becomes convinced that Christina’s stepfather (Dean Norris), who just so happens to be the police commissioner, is abusing her — thus sparking Henry to devise a plan to collect evidence and rescue Christina.

Jacob Tremblay as Peter, Jaeden Lieberher as Henry, and Naomi Watts as Susan star in Colin Trevorrow’s ‘THE BOOK OF HENRY.’ Courtesy of Focus Features.

The film’s setup is entertaining and easy to like, taking a page out of Alfred Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW and every kids’ adventure film you grew up on. The youngsters here are cute and funny, and their creative minds and what they build together are a sight to behold, most notably Henry’s elaborate treehouse. But once the plot really kicks in, Gregg Hurwitz’s script takes a turn for the worse and never moves its pieces to believable places.

There are too many moments and character traits left undeveloped and unexplained for us to care where the story goes. Much of what unfolds seems too matter of fact, such as Henry leaving audio directions for his mother to know how to stealthily pull off a crime, which doesn’t feel very plausible in the first place. It’s 2017 and we have to accept that a mother can fire a sniper rifle like a Navy SEAL solely because she plays first-person shooter games? Please.

The absurdity doesn’t let up at all when it comes to Christina’s supposed horrible stepfather. Child abuse is important to acknowledge and bring to light, but the movie fails to treat the subject with the gravitas it demands. It never invests the audience in Henry’s observations, relying instead on Christina showing signs of withholding the truth. The worst thing her stepfather visibly does is demand that Henry’s mom rake the leaves in her yard in an annoyed tone. More could have been revealed or implied while remaining within the boundaries of good taste and good narrative.

It’s hard to know if a director other than Trevorrow could have made THE BOOK OF HENRY any better. It’s a tall order for anyone to mold this disjointed plot into one cohesive film. Trevorrow does what he can, blending some nice Spielberg-ian camera shots with good scenes of drama from time to time, but little in this movie eases our worry about Trevorrow closing the STAR WARS sequel trilogy in 2019.

There’s just no saving this scrapbook of a story.

Grade: D+

THE BOOK OF HENRY opens Friday (6/16).

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.