Before it takes a bizarre dark twist that would make M. Night Shyamalan bristle with envy, “The Book of Henry” is a very familiar sort of family drama: Single mother Susan (Naomi Watts) juggles a thankless waitressing gig with caring for her two young children. One them, 11-year-old Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) exhibits above-average intelligence, managing the family finances and providing a practical voice to offset Susan’s chaotic personal life. Henry’s idiosyncratic personality leads to a number of whimsical, bittersweet exchanges. Somebody gets cancer, and the movie becomes a painfully obvious tearjerker.
And then, quite suddenly, the sentimentalism gives way to Hitchcockian suspense, and the most ludicrous conceit of any American movie this year. It’s a high-stakes gamble that doesn’t quite pay off, and at times courts disaster, but it’s fascinating to watch the movie go there.
That’s due, in part, to the conditions surrounding its existence. Though best-selling crime novelist Gregg Hurwitz wrote this original screenplay long ago, “The Book of Henry” is directed by Colin Trevorrow, whose career took its own sharp turn after his Sundance-acclaimed debut, the quirky time-travel comedy “Safety Not Guaranteed.” That lightweight breakout catapulted Trevorrow into his unlikely sophomore effort, “Jurassic World,” which then paved the way for him to become the helmer of the forthcoming third entry in the latest “Star Wars” trilogy.
Trevorrow reportedly was interested “The Book of Henry” years ago, but now its production is sandwiched between two massive blockbusters. As unlikely as his career trajectory has been, this story’s an even tougher sell, one that fuses two dissonant genres to an extent that’s likely to baffle audiences at both ends of the spectrum.
But that also makes it a more natural step forward for Trevorrow than “Jurassic World,” and in some ways it’s the sophomore feature he never got the chance to make. As with “Safety Not Guaranteed,” which teased out rom-com and sci-fi possibilities over the course of a whimsical plot, the new movie unfolds with a risky mishmash of tones — it’s intermittently funny, mopey, and tense, sometimes totally off-base but certainly ambitious in its approach.
For the first half hour or so, “The Book of Henry” plays like a hokey “Little Miss Sunshine” knock-off. The garrulous Henry annoys his teacher by upstaging her in class, then heads home to help his mom cope with her rough days at work and serving as surrogate father to his younger brother Peter (“Room” star Jacob Tremblay, who spends most of the movie delivering wide-eyed reactions). Susan’s only real friend is co-worker Sheila (Sarah Silverman, tattooed and foul-mouthed but otherwise one-note in her ongoing quest to find substantial movie roles); as far as we can tell, the pair spend their off-hours guzzling wine and talking about how they need more men in their lives.
On the other hand, as Susan’s quick to point out, Henry’s enough man for her to handle. There may be creepy, Oedipal connotations to their relationship, but that’s hardly the most outlandish component of this movie once Henry determines that next-door neighbor Glenn (Dean Norris) has been abusing his stepdaughter Christina (Maddie Ziegler) and takes it upon himself to set things right. Then, documenting his plans in a red notebook filled with an insanely detailed strategy, he ropes his mother into a scheme that pits her against her moral code.
The circumstances grow ever sillier, but Trevorrow manages to frame them with the imagery of the thrillers that come to mind. Peeking out her window late at night to spy on the alleged criminal activities next door, Sarah becomes enmeshed a “Rear Window” plot meted out by her son’s voice echoing in her head. The scenario suggests that just as children absorb the anxieties and passions of their parents, it can go the other way. Watts, who sings a touching song to ease her children to sleep in one scene and drops a one-liner about dead leaves with morbid implications in the next, serves as the anchor in an otherwise messy plot. Lieberher brims with energy from the movie’s earliest scenes, though his extreme intelligence is so hard to buy it limits the potential for the movie to earn the serious thrills of the final act.
The competing variables of the plot collide during the climax, which involves both a cheesy elementary school talent show and late-night showdowns with guns. The circumstances behind it all are laughably absurd, but within the confines of the movie’s own deranged logic, totally unpredictable. Carried along by Michael Giaccino’s score — which shifts from awe-inspiring to ominous with ease — “The Book of Henry” reappropriates the mold of the vanilla suburban drama by pushing it in subversive directions. Caught between capricious moments and grim genre tropes, it’s a ridiculous premise that’s never quite self-aware enough to obtain much depth or sustained entertainment value.
Still, there’s no question that “The Book of Henry” imbues a hackneyed premise with fresh edge. For Trevorrow, it amounts to something of a battle cry as he continues venturing into blockbuster turf. If nothing else, it’s proof of a filmmaker willing to think outside the box, or at least try to make an old one look new, even if the end result comes up short.
“The Book of Henry” premiered at the 2017 LA Film Festival. It opens theatrically June 16, 2017.