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‘The Book of Henry’ is jarring exercise in narrative, tonal dissonance

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FOCUS FEATURES | COURTESY

"The Book of Henry" | Focus Features
Grade: C

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JUNE 15, 2017

Set to direct the ninth “Star Wars” saga film, Colin Trevorrow has had a notably varied track record, from the entirely underwhelming “Jurassic World” to the absolute charmer “Safety Not Guaranteed.” Cinephiles are eager to know if Trevorrow’s latest, “The Book of Henry,” can serve as a litmus test for his entry in the galaxy from far, far away.

Unfortunately, “The Book of Henry” doesn’t offer a straightforward answer, and like “Jurassic World” before it, this film is a mixed bag — an idiom that should be taken literally.

One wonders if Trevorrow and screenwriter Gregg Hurwitz were challenged to randomly select three films from a bag — filled with films as varied as “Rashomon,” “Memento” and “Minions” — and to make a film drawing on all three for inspiration. Luckily, “The Book of Henry” is not a mashup between “Rashomon,” “Memento” and “Minions,” but it’s as narratively and tonally dissonant as such a hybrid would be. To reveal which three films were hypothetically drawn out of the bag would be a spoiler — so similar is this film to those unnamed three.

That fact cripples any attempt to describe the film’s plot, but it goes as follows: Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) is a child genius who lives with his younger brother, Peter (Jacob Tremblay) and mother, Susan (Naomi Watts). Henry’s life changes when he begins devoting himself to helping his neighbor, Christina (Maddie Ziegler) escape her abusive stepfather (Dean Norris).

There are two nexus points in “The Book of Henry” when the film transforms into wildly different stories. As a result, each of the film’s three acts are incomparable. This isn’t to say they aren’t good — alone, each act is passable, especially the second one, which is a genuinely emotional and surprisingly accurate portrayal of grief. But when three different stories are stitched together, their narrative dissonance relinquishes any emotional hold on the audience.

Tonal dissonance also becomes painfully jarring as the film progresses. In serious scenes, Trevorrow inserts moments of levity that render all tension moot, while lighthearted scenes are interwoven with moments of remarkable darkness that leave the viewer confused and untrusting of the emotions that the film later attempts to elicit.

Aside from tonal and narrative dissonance, “The Book of Henry” also demands the audience not just to suspend, but to defenestrate its disbelief, perhaps even more so than did “Jurassic World” — a film predicated on kids being bored at a dinosaur zoo. This film’s plot depends heavily on coincidences and tropes, and by the third act, while they’re almost funny, they are still ultimately distracting.

No matter how jarring the film is, it boasts admirable performances, as Jaeden Lieberher and Jacob Tremblay are two of the best child actors working today. Lieberher plays Henry with just the right combination of pretentiousness and earnestness to make him instantly likable.

As for Tremblay, he instantly improves any film he is in through his uncanny emotiveness. His future — including “The Predator,” in which he will hopefully be playing the titular monster — is undeniably bright. Likewise, Naomi Watts stands out as Henry and Peter’s mother. Her believability in the role lends the character’s unbelievable actions some shred of audience sympathy.

Now back to the original question: Will “Star Wars IX” be any good? Based on “The Book of Henry,” it’s impossible to tell. Either Hurwitz’s script or Trevorrow dropped the ball — maybe both did — but it is exceedingly difficult to tease out the degree to which Trevorrow’s unremarkable directing was a result of, or an exacerbation of, a script riddled with issues.

One thing is certain, though. Those watching “The Book of Henry” will likely belong to four categories — Trevorrow fans, the average moviegoer seeking a sweet family film like “Mrs. Doubtfire,” those craving a grim vision of “Home Alone” and curious “Star Wars” fans. Though these moviegoers are vastly different, all will walk away with more than what they asked for.

Harrison Tunggal covers film. Contact him at [email protected].
LAST UPDATED

JUNE 14, 2017


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