"Violence isn't the worst thing in the world," 11-year-old Henry Carpenter (Jaeden Lieberher) tells mother Susan (Naomi Watts) late one night before bed. "What is, then?" she asks. His reply: "Apathy." Henry, a highly intelligent child wise beyond his years, is referring to an experience they had at the grocery store earlier in the day. When they witnessed an act of abuse, he had wanted to try to help the battered young woman, but Susan insisted they not get involved in other people's problems. Excelling in school, ensuring his family's finances are in check, dedicated to being a great big brother to 8-year-old Peter (Jacob Tremblay), talking to his principal like an adult rather than a student, Henry sees the world a little differently than most and is blessed with an innate empathy for those closest to him. When, by chance, he stumbles upon a shocking discovery about his neighbors, police commissioner Glenn Sickleman (Dean Norris) and stepdaughter Christina (Maddie Ziegler), he is faced with a crucial decision that could potentially change a lot of lives.
Directed by Colin Trevorrow (2015's "Jurassic World
") and written by Gregg Hurwitz, "The Book of Henry" is difficult to pin down because it doesn't safely fall into any one genre box or target demographic. At times, it appears to be a heartwarming family film. In others, it delves into serious mature themes that younger audiences will probably not understand. In others still, it transforms into an intense thriller. Trevorrow gives the material a gentle yet assured touch while refusing to pander. As well-earned as the film's emotions are, however, the unusual plot becomes increasingly contrived. Viewers are either going to go with it, or they won't. It worked for me, most of the time, aided by an ensemble of wonderful performances that make the unbelievable suddenly plausible.
Naomi Watts (2016's "The Sea of Trees
") is having a moment in a career of many deserved moments. Her turn as dedicated single mom Susan (arriving in tandem to her outstanding work in David Lynch's "Twin Peaks" continuation) runs powerful and deep. In a three-dimensional arc of astonishing range, Watts is asked to play unfiltered, soulful, adrift, unconditionally loving, and distraught while navigating humor and pathos. She never steps wrong. The same readily applies to Jaeden Lieberher (2015's "Aloha
"), achingly good as the hyper-smart, tough yet vulnerable Henry, and Jacob Tremblay (2015's "Room
"), as adoring younger brother Peter. All three actors are so very strong and their relationships so honest that when their close-knit unit is threatened, it matters. Adeptly filling out a few of the picture's supporting roles, Sarah Silverman (2015's "I Smile Back
") makes every moment count while bringing a brassy sadness to Susan's co-worker and friend Sheila, and Lee Pace (2014's "Guardians of the Galaxy
") is warm and sympathetic as Dr. David Daniels, taking an invested interest in the Carpenters when their paths cross.
"I don't know how to be a mother," Susan confides in the take-charge Henry during one of the most poignant moments in "The Book of Henry." "I never taught you that," her son reassures her, in five words giving her the confidence she needs in a moment of extreme doubt. Much of the film is like this, pure and lived-in. As the full scope of the plot gradually reveals itself, so does a certain storytelling artifice. Dramatic manipulations run from still-potent to far-fetched, while moments particularly near the concluding scenes too closely resemble an "ABC Afterschool Special" episode. That "The Book of Henry" nevertheless is about people who feel real, and whom we care about, goes a long way in smoothing over its more strained machinations. Director Colin Trevorrow and screenwriter Gregg Hurwitz bring ambition and wisdom to the proceedings, and the outcome strikes as a singular vision without a bunch of overthinking studio execs getting in the way to tell them how and for whom their film should be made.