[Screen It]


(2017) (Naomi Watts, Jaeden Lieberher) (PG-13)

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Drama: A single mom must contend with her brilliant son's belief that their next door neighbor is abusing his teenage stepdaughter, along with his well-calculated plan detailing what to do about that.
Susan Carpenter (NAOMI WATTS) is a single mom who's raising her ultra-brilliant, 11-year-old son, Henry (JAEDEN LIEBERHER), along with his younger brother, Peter (JACOB TREMBLAY), by herself. When she isn't working alongside her friend and co-worker, Sheila (SARAH SILVERMAN), at a small diner, Susan lets Henry handle the family's finances and other serious issues, including a series of headaches he's been recently experiencing.

But when he's not doing that, inventing all sorts of things or protecting Peter from bullies at school, Henry is concerned that the teenager who lives next door, Christina Sickleman (MADDIE ZIEGLER), is being abused by her widowed stepfather, Glenn (DEAN NORRIS). To make matters worse, he's the police commissioner and thus friends with those at the child protective services division in their town.

Accordingly, and realizing he must think outside of the box that isn't offering him many viable solutions, Henry begins concocting a plan to help Christina. But when an illness suddenly strikes and Dr. David Daniels (LEE PACE) is called in hopes of helping Henry, the boy details his plan in hopes that his mother will execute it for him.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
As a long-time aspiring screenwriter, I always look at films from the storytelling perspective and come up with solutions I might have used to deal with any sort of narrative issues that might be present. Some are intended to further enhance what's already present, while others are designed to fix any number of believability problems in terms of plot, character motivation and related action and so on.

Yes, it's easy to "fix" problems in hindsight and sometimes those involved in writing scripts and making movies end up in too deep to notice things that could potentially distract viewers or even derail entire projects.

With that in mind, I wish I had been hired as a script doctor to tweak "The Book of Henry" as it's close to being a decent film about intelligence, compassion, and loss. A number of things, however, end up bedeviling it and even change the tone midstream, not always with the best end result.

**Please note that the following contains some unavoidable spoilers that need to be addressed.

The film -- written by Gregg Hurwitz and directed by Colin Trevorrow ("Jurassic World") -- centers around the precocious title character (played well by Jaeden Lieberher), an 11-year-old who's filled with as much pragmatism as he is compassion for those abused by others. Despite his age but due to his intelligence and maturity beyond his years, he's sort of the parent figure to his single waitress-mom (Naomi Watts) and his younger brother (Jacob Tremblay -- previously of "Room" -- and desperately in need of his agent landing him a trauma-less movie).

When not handling the family finances (he issues stock trade orders over the phone after school) and protecting young Peter from school bullies, he's also an inventor and plans every creation out to a T. But despite his craftiness and intelligence, he's frustrated by his inability to help his next-door neighbor and classmate, Christina (Maddie Ziegler), who he's absolutely sure is being abused by her widowed stepfather (Dean Norris) who also just so happens to be the police commissioner.

Accordingly, and knowing no one will believe his word versus that of an admired public official, he comes up with an out of the box solution that he also carefully plans and calculates. But then tragedy strikes, the film hits some incredibly powerful emotional moments, and viewers are left with "I didn't see that coming" and "What now? responses to the remaining story arc.

Alas, this is where the story sort of derails and ends up heading in a different direction where some script tweaks could have saved the day. An uber-smart kid, especially with high moral standards, would obviously know his plan -- regardless of how much a solution is needed -- is illegal, immoral and obviously likely detrimental to himself and his family despite all of the careful planning to create "the perfect crime."

But had elements of the script simply been rearranged, this could have alleviated the issue. With knowledge of his illness, he could have had his hand forced and thus come up with a plan, knowing he wouldn't make it out anyway and that his ultimate demise would not be in vain.

Similarly, by having his grieving mom later pick up his plan and decide to carry through with it -- all as guided by his words and step by step instructions on paper and audio recordings -- will likely strain credibility with viewers. Again, a few tweaks here and there -- a dying boy's last, adamant wish for his mother to carry out his solution, the bad guy eventually posing a threat or maybe even abusing her remaining son and so on -- could have made what transpires believable.

In the end, "The Book of Henry" is a mixed bag that starts off strong but ends up too preposterous to believe. I just wish some simple fixes had been applied that could have kept this from jumping the tracks and wobbling toward its conclusion. It rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed June 13, 2016 / Posted June 16, 2016

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