PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The Book of Henry is an offbeat family drama that includes several severe shifts in tone.
And while those jarring narrative surprises don’t all work perfectly, they at least mark this fable – a viewing alternative to the lineup of caffeinated summer thrillers — as an ambitious and admirable achievement.
Yet exactly what’s involved in those shifts will have to remain unarticulated lest we wander into regretful spoiler territory.
This much can be said: The Book of Henry is anything but predictable.
It features Naomi Watts as diner waitress Susan Carpenter, a single mom in a small suburban town raising two boys, a playful eight-year-old named Peter (Jacob Tremblay) and thoughtful 11-year-old Henry (Jaeden Lieberher), who just happens to be a genius and who more or less takes care of everybody and everything in their household in his inimitable style.
But there is a terrible secret being harbored by the family unit next door, and Henry writes a book detailing how to solve the agonizing problem.
Susan discovers the titular book written by her son that contains his complicated rescue plan, aimed at stopping a stepfather (Dean Norris), the town’s police commissioner, from mistreating his daughter (Maddie Ziegler), who is a classmate of Henry’s and on whom Henry has a major crush.
But the plan calls for Henry’s mom and younger brother to play leading roles in the invented drama, and they just may not be up to being at the center of it.
Director Colin Trevorrow hit it big with the large-scale blockbuster, Jurassic World, after attracting movie-landscape attention with the indie charmer, Safety Not Guaranteed. So, for him, The Book of Henry represents a return to small-scale moviemaking.
His modestly mounted film is consistently compelling and generates moderate suspense, although it’s not helped by several farfetched wrinkles in the third act.
But it also manages to be surprisingly moving in the late going.
Watts is her characteristically convincing and appealing self despite script limitations, and Trevorow gets assured performances from his three young principals — Lieberher, Tremblay,and Ziegler.
As for the screenplay by novelist Gregg Hurwitz, which he wrote a couple of decades ago, it throws out the generic playbook and keeps the audience on their toes even when credibility is an issue.
So we’ll move next door to 3 stars out of 4 for The Book of Henry. As summer movies go, it’s little and quiet and thoughtful and grounded in real-world behavior. Not a superhero in sight: what a concept.