(Note: It's really impossible to determine what in The Book of Henry constitutes a "spoiler." If you decide to see it - something I don't recommend - do so before reading this review, in any case.)
The Book of Henry has no idea what it wants to be or to do. Its protagonist is a preteen boy of 11 who is heralded by those closest to him (almost exclusively his family) as a genius, so of course part of Gregg Hurwitz's screenplay is focused upon reiterating that point into oblivion. He is also one-third of a curious family unit that can't really be called "alternative," save for the attitudes of the three parties involved toward each other and toward the term "family unit." He is dying, a glioblastoma having found its way into his lymph nodes and impacted other crucial structures.
Oh, yeah, he also discovers that the girl next door is undergoing some form of physical or sexual abuse by her father, and to complicate matters, the man is the police commissioner of their small town. Hurwitz and director Colin Trevorrow want their movie to be, as you can see here, in four, entirely disparate states of being (with the movie entering a fifth one in a final act that takes one wrong step after another). Perhaps only one of those states considers the movie's characters to be functionally human, and that would be the second one: Henry (Jaeden Lieberher), his brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay), and their mother Susan (Naomi Watts) feel like a genuine unit.
That doesn't, however, make their dynamic any less strange. Henry, as the resident "genius," essentially runs the household, paying bills and generally being the responsible one. Susan plays video games and drinks heavily with her best friend Sheila (Sarah Silverman), with whom she works at a diner. Peter works on elaborate inventions that Henry tests and critiques. All three performances work in tandem to bring these characters to life as best they can, although it doesn't help that the attitude toward the first state of being interferes so often.
The first of a multitude of problems is that Henry isn't really a character. He's actually a vessel for the concept of a child prodigy: misunderstood by classmates and seemingly above them intellectually (His opening moments are during a class presentation involving how each student views his or her "legacy," and he sees his with just enough pragmatism to seem cynical) and analytical to a frightening degree (especially notable as the impossibly perceptive contents of a notebook, complete with precocious narration, come into play). This, the film hypothesizes, can all be related to his illness.
He's even analytical about the thing that's killing him, a fact that is as frustrating as it sounds. His doctor (played by Lee Pace) is startled by his intelligence and resolve, especially upon needing to inform him of that illness. Trevorrow approaches Henry's cancer with about as much subtlety as a jackhammer, with the makeup department providing only a bit of paler foundation to Lieberher's cheeks as Henry's body weakens.
If that weren't enough, Hurwitz gives us a secondary plot that eventually takes precedence as the main one: Through his voyeuristic tendency to watch neighbor girl Christina (Maddie Ziegler) through their respective windows, he discovers that her father Glenn (Dean Norris), the police commissioner, is abusing her in some way, and it's in these stretches that the film's priorities turn sinister. The illness hits Henry, and his response is to double-down on a revenge plot against the man, leaving the entire contingency plan in that red notebook for his mother.
Everything about that last paragraph is indicative of a twisted and relentless thriller, yet what surrounds it is a treacly drama with a cutesy musical score (by the usually solid Michael Giacchino) and a bizarrely hopeful ending that either tidies everything up or sweeps the most worrisome parts under the rug entirely. The application of the abuse subplot is particularly reductive and borders on offensive, but the whole of The Book of Henry is similarly off-putting. It inspires equal parts bafflement and disdain, with the ultimate weight on the former.
Naomi Watts (Susan), Jaeden Lieberher (Henry), Jacob Tremblay (Peter), Sarah Silverman (Sheila), Dean Norris (Glenn), Lee Pace (David), Maddie Ziegler (Christina).
Directed by Colin Trevorrow and written by Gregg Hurwitz.
Rated PG-13 (thematic elements, brief language).
Released on June 16, 2017.