The Book of Henry did not have a positive box-office reception. The movie has a paltry 21% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and while that score isn’t a perfect measure it’s representative of the savaging it received upon release. This isn’t a case of a movie being “for the fans, not the critics” either, as audiences essentially ignored it. The mix of disappointing box office and critical snubbing, along with a few stories of poor on-set behavior, is at least part of the reason director Colin Trevorrow was eventually let go from Star Wars: Episode IX.
The story in the film follows Henry (Jaeden Lieberher), a precocious and incredibly intelligent 12 year old boy who takes care of his younger brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay) and single mother Susan (Naomi Watts). Susan never seems to have her life together and relies on Henry to pay the bills and manage the finances while she plays video games. One day Henry realizes the girl next door Christina (Maddie Ziegler) is likely being abused by her stepfather, who has avoided previous accusations by virtue of his position as the chief of police. Through a series of incidents I won’t get into because they spoil the story, Susan must take on the role of savior for Christina, enacting a plan devised by Henry that will lead to Christina’s freedom.
One of the primary points of criticism for the movie was that it was unexpectedly dark. It’s true. The characters act in ways that are much different than they would in other films that have more commercial appeal. It’s a difficult film and, admittedly, there are more than a few plot inconsistencies that should leave viewers scratching their chins.
I’m convinced, though, that much of the reaction came as a result of the movie’s tone and story being vastly different from what was presented in its marketing campaign.
The trailer does indeed lay out much of the story’s outline for the audience to understand, starting with the home situation of Susan, Henry and Peter and continuing through Susan’s execution of the plan left for her by Henry to help Christina. Left unexplained is why Henry is missing from the latter half of the story, a twist that likely caught many a critic and brave viewer by surprise.
But the rest of the campaign, especially the posters, presented a much different film. Those posters make the movie seem as if it’s along the lines of Flight of the Navigator or E.T., a story of adventurous and inventive kids getting in slightly over their heads and having an adventure. The image of Henry wearing his homemade goggles became a common element in the campaign, meant to convey that sense of childhood exploration as well as his intelligence.
That’s not what the movie delivers, though, and the disconnect between the tone of the marketing and the actual movie threw more than a few people off, leading to poor reviews and even worse word of mouth.
The Book of Henry isn’t a perfect movie by any stretch. But it’s also not as bad as the reviews made it out to be. We can have a discussion about Trevorrow’s talents as a filmmaker and whether he should be making blockbusters and high-profile character dramas this early in his career. But if you give the movie here a chance and view it free of the somewhat misleading pitch that was made in last year’s marketing, you may not regret it. I won’t say it’s enjoyable from beginning to end and, again, won’t pretend like there aren’t issues that should have been addressed. It’s not the complete trainwreck it was often made out to be, though.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.