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Santa Maria Sun / Film

This weeks review

The Book of Henry offers a ray of hope for humanity




Where is it playing?: The Palm in SLO

What's it rated?: PG-13

What's it worth?: $Full Price (Ryah)

What's it worth?: $Full Price (Karen)

User Rating: 0.00 (0 Votes)

Editor’s note: This week’s Split Screen was written by New Times Arts Editor Ryah Cooley and Staff Writer Karen Garcia while Glen and Anna Starkey partied it up at Live Oak.

From writer Gregg Hurwitz (Orphan X book series) and director Colin Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed, Jurassic World) comes The Book of Henry, a tearjerker of a film that shows how we can all help one another if we just bother to care enough. Protagonist Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) is an actual genius and at age 11 is busy taking care of everyone around him, from his little brother, Peter (Jacob Tremblay), who gets beat up at school, to his single mom, Susan (Naomi Watts), who was left by their dad and doesn’t have a grasp on the family finances. Henry grows more and more concerned about his classmate and next-door neighbor Christina (Maddie Ziegler) and devises a plan to help her, with his mom’s help. (105 min.)

Ryah: The Book of Henry is a beautiful story with the soul of an indie film and the cast of a blockbuster, including Watts (You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, King Kong), SNL alumni Sarah Silverman and Bobby Moynihan, and Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris. And you can’t forget about the kids. Lieberher has quite the résumé for his age, which includes Midnight Special and The Confirmation. His on-screen little brother Tremblay starred as Jack in the Oscar-winning film Room. It also includes a breakout acting performance by Ziegler, who you might recognize from her time on reality TV’s Dance Moms. This movie will have you crying from start to finish, but you’ll leave the theater feeling just a tad hopeful that good can overcome evil. We’re going to have to spoil one big piece of the plot, as it’s impossible to talk about the majority of the film otherwise. The Book of Henry operates according to a different set of rules than actual reality, kind of like a comic book or fairy tale. Once you accept that, it’s easy enough to buy into the story. Genius kid Henry takes care of everyone, literally doing the family’s finances after his dad abandons them (we’re never told why) and saving little brother Peter from bullies on the playground. So it doesn’t escape his notice when his friend and neighbor Christina seems withdrawn and gaunt, barely hiding bruises. Henry exhausts the traditional routes of seeking help, but nothing comes of it because Christina’s abuser and stepfather, Glen (Norris), is the area’s police commissioner.

Karen: What made this story so compelling from the beginning was this genius 11-year-old who’s basically the head of a household while his mom works at a local diner and plays video games in the evening. We see glimpses of Susan’s diner pal Shelia (Silverman), whom she occasionally gets drunk with. But the single parent here is Henry, save for the good night kisses and rides home from school. It’s hard to sympathize with Susan because she’s just a supportive role. So, spoiler alert, the pillar of this family suffers from headaches that blur his vision, and—cue the tears and bring the tissue boxes—it becomes painfully clear that our hero isn’t long for this world. His main concern, aside from leaving behind his helpless mother and younger brother, is Christina. Before being hospitalized, Henry witnesses from his window Christina being abused next door. But the audience doesn’t see anything, except for flickering lights in Christina’s room, and an empty chair by a drained glass of alcohol in the den downstairs, signaling that Glen, in a presumably drunken rage, has gone upstairs to beat his stepdaughter. Before any action happens, the camera shifts from the window to Henry’s face and his reaction. I think it’s a powerful move for the film, as avenues such as Netflix have left nothing to the imagination on shows like 13 Reasons Why—everything is displayed on screen. Henry must do something, but his days are limited and he’s left instructions for his mother that he believes will save Christina.

Ryah: The decision not to show any of the actual abuse feels like an artistic choice rather than a cop out, and the cast delivers such emotional intensity that it all feels too real. Ziegler plays Christina as so depressed and afraid that you fear she’ll slip away, beyond help’s reach. Which is why when Susan reads Henry’s journal after his death, she gives his plan  (it includes murder) some consideration. If it sounds nuts, it’s because it is, but this is one of those moments where you have to just accept that the world created in The Book of Henry just has a different set of rules. Susan struggles as she mourns her oldest son while trying to decide if she should follow his extremely detailed and thought-out plan. Henry has thought of everything and it’s simultaneously impressive and creepy. Meanwhile, Peter struggles without his older brother around.

Karen: Without giving any more away between the tear-jerking plot twist and the agonizing anticipation of whether or not Henry’s murderous plan will be carried out, The Book of Henry is thoughtfully laid out. Each moment is so precise. We see these characters progress from holding onto the solid foundation of Henry to finally learning how they can each individually stand without him. ❍

This week’s Sun Screen was written by New Times Arts Editor Ryah Cooley and Staff Writer Karen Garcia. Comment at