The best films are those that require some active, alert viewing. They depend on a degree of audience interpretation and provide a minimum of predigested pabulum. They are films that cannot be reviewed, let alone discussed, in the traditional way. They are dense and vibrant and keep us off balance until the final fade-out. Ideally, even longer.
I don’t want to oversell the virtues of that approach in “The Book of Henry,” a movie I found irresistible precisely because it is so confounding. It’s not pursuing the complex ambiguity of a Stanley Kubrick film. It is solid, well-crafted entertainment made rather remarkable by how many genre shifts and changes of emotional tone it hits as it progresses.
The film is directed by Colin Trevorrow, who gave us amusing doses of suspense, humor and sci-fi in the fine little indie love story “Safety Not Guaranteed” and the studio blockbuster “Jurassic World.” Those films wove their diverse moods together into a single rich whole.
This is something different and mysterious. The film features plot lines that diverge, reconverge and evolve. It’s a touching family drama and a serious crime thriller, as well as a comedy about kids who act like adults and immature parents who break the rules.
I won’t describe the action in detail because the less known, the better. Without wandering into spoiler territory, a few things can be noted. It is set in a small East Coast town that looks as safe and bucolic as any Norman Rockwell community. Naomi Watts leads the cast as Susan, a single mother raising two boys. Her first, 12-year-old Henry (Jaeden Lieberher, outstanding in “Midnight Special” and “St. Vincent”), isn’t simply precocious, he’s the textbook definition of genius.
His mother keeps him in a standard school rather than a gifted kids’ academy to help him develop the skills he’ll need to grow up as a healthy, socially oriented, productive adult. And it works: He’s smart without ever being a smartass. His little brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay, exceptional in “Room”) is still developing, but seems more like a standard-issue great child.
Susan doesn’t favor Henry above Peter, even though he handles the family finances like a hedge fund manager and his witty, winning conversations are abnormally precise. Mom continues to work as a waitress even though Henry’s stock wizardry has made that financially needless. Other than small vices such as playing graphic video war games and drinking with her sassy co-worker Sheila (Sarah Silverman), she is as normal as blueberry pie.
Trevorrow introduces his setting and characters with the warmhearted glow of a Spielberg film that focuses on the experience of being a kid. Yet in large part, this is a story about innocence lost and the troubles of reclaiming it. Not all children’s stories provide handy happy endings, and this one falls deeper and deeper down an ever less lighthearted rabbit hole.
It’s no accident that the centerpiece of the film is Watts. Who else can spin empathetic and relatable performances spanning emotions from humor to numbness, despair, joy, confusion and misdirection?
The idyllic neighborhood unexpectedly turns into a menacing battleground, creating a child-in-danger movie with a distinctively Hitchcockian feel. The boys and Henry’s cute classmate and next-door neighbor Christina (charismatic Maddie Ziegler from TV’s “Dance Moms”) are increasingly called to look angry, scared and vulnerable, and they are great at it. Henry’s resourcefulness is crucial to addressing the scary situation that develops, but it’s Susan who basically carries the full weight of the audience’s fear. “Henry” slips from a coming-of-age story for a child to a coming-to-responsibility story for an adult.
This is a poignant, frequently funny film that moves into unexpected dark subjects. That means that it’s too independent-minded for a mass audience hoping to forget the bad surprises of human life. That’s just what makes “The Book of Henry” feel so valuable to me.