Friday, July 7, 2017

The Book of Henry (2017), by Colin Trevorrow

Huh. That's weird. I'm being topical.

Yep, The Book of Henry is still in theaters as of this writing...though I'm sure it will be gone by the time this is finally posted. I don't go out to movie theaters very often Because Anxiety, but I've been trying to do so more often as I've gotten older and better paid. And I try to make it a mix: I'll go see Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 one week, and God's Not Dead 2 the next. I keep my ears open for particularly strange movies when I'm feeling in the "bad movie" mode, because as I've said before, if I had a chance to see Voodoo Man or The Face of Marble in theaters back in the day I'd jump at the chance. And there have been some weird movies to arise in the theaters in the last few years. Noah, Winter's Tale, and the complete filmography of Tyler Perry are all things which seem like they would have been theatrical impossibilities in my childhood, serving as inmates of Straight-to-Video Hell. But in time of strife, art becomes weird, and exploitation movies and other shit rises up to the surface. If there is a collective consciousness, it, too, gets the stress pukes, and unlike most vomit the colors we see in this strange distillation of the national soul are beautiful to behold. So let's take a look at Book of Henry's puke, and...well, I think perhaps I've already said too much. Focus on the beauty part of that metaphor, for this movie is something special, which I think will grow in power as history marches on.

We are told the tale of Henry Carpenter, who is a boy genius of boy geniuses. There seems to be no field beyond his grasp and by the age of eleven he has mastered most forms of science. He lives with his mother Susan (Naomi Watts) and brother Peter, and they neighbor the house where Henry's friend (crush?) Christina Sickleman and her stepfather, the local police commissioner, live. Henry eventually determines that Mr. Sickleman abuses Christina, probably sexually--at least physically enough as to cause characters to allude to (offscreen) ER visits. Henry uses all of the tools at his disposal to report the case, but due to both his age and adult apathy no one believes him. Then, he chances upon the decision to kill Mr. Sickleman. And using vast financial resources accumulated from years of brilliant stock market manipulation, he begins to put a plan into action to make the assassination happen--until it turns out he has brain cancer, which he learns from Dr. Lee Pace. (Dr. Bearded!Lee Pace at that, so there's a little somethin' fer the ladies.) Thus, he creates the Book of Henry: a notebook, accompanied by audio journals, which give detailed and explicit instructions to let Susan do the deed herself. Peter gives this to Susan after Henry inevitably does pass away. Susan has so much faith in her son that she believes his evidence, and begins to follow the journals to bring about the end of Mr. Sickleman. And this is when the movie becomes a thriller.

A year ago I worked as a bookseller at the local Barnes & Noble, which was a grueling torture fun exercise in the art of selling memberships and credit cards books. And during that time I became acquainted with what people really read. Contrary to what my professors told me, the vast majority of people don't really have a tendency to read good books, whether that's the "classics" or actual good books. There were a dozen names I would get time and time again which blur together in my mind, authors omnipresent but forgettable. John Sanford? James Patterson? Airport Lit Fic Deep Core-type stuff. Among these are the books marketed seemingly exclusively at White Women, with the caps meaning to make a distinction from white women in general; you probably know what I mean. These books were romance novels, some of them, but also their "more literary" lit fic cousins, which oftentimes are written by white men under pen names. This movie is a White Woman movie, I feel, or it began life as one. Everyone talks in sassy one-liners, even when it makes them seem like aliens. A child dies of cancer, in his mother's arms, no less. The main plot is about child abuse at the hands of a man who is every Movie Abusive Stepdad ever, and obviously comes across as such at first glance. These are things I view as flaws--lazy writing combined with the writing that everyone produces in the early days when they want us to know their characters are COOL. No real cool person talks this quirky, because real cool people are never happy, and quirky people never sound this confident in their aphorisms even if they actually spout them out loud. But I can forgive unrealistic writing, because everything else about the movie is marvelously unrealistic.

Consider that synopsis above. This starts out a movie about a Hollywood Quirky family centered around a boy genius. It then transforms into a rape-revenge-by-proxy movie, and then a four-tissue child-cancer weeper, before shifting back into rape-revenge, this time by double proxy! But the scripting stays consistent, so it never really stops being a quirky/weepy family movie either! Susan and Henry still banter at each even after the latter is reduced to handwriting and tape recordings. He's apparently so good at psychology that he predicted every single thing she would say and do in regards to his orders...include turning the wrong direction walking down the street. This is supposed to be cute, a reflection of how close mother and son were. But there is not a hair of an attempt to suspend disbelief--the movie started with disbelief smashed at the ground floor like a grand piano. That's why I cited Face of Marble up above. This suddenly seems to me like our era's equivalent of a Frankenstein/voodoo/vampire ghost dog mash-up.

For a movie that feels like every minute of its nearly two-hours (for better or worse), Book of Henry feels like it should be a lot longer. There are some curious loose ends left loose that shouldn't be. Namely, it's really only alluded to what Christina's abuse is. There are some hints here and there--Peter mentions that Henry's description of the abuse doesn't entirely make sense to him, suggesting that there are sexual components to it that his child mind doesn't understand (while also implying that Henry's knowledge includes sex ed...because of course it does). We never physically see the abuse, nor any marks from it, just Christina's depression, which could theoretically arise from other factors. It's odd to me that a movie that drops the f-bomb about three or four times, and features a character who is apparently an alcoholic, but they can't mention sexual abuse. The movie is already a bit beyond a PG-13 anyway, and I think they could have pushed it to an R without making it too overtly graphic. The youngest person I saw at my showing looked to be about my age, which is to say early twenties.

Like I said above, this movie is based on the tropes of Books for Middle-Class White People in many ways, and unfortunately that includes sexism. Let's just start by saying that Book of Henry features three female characters of note, and they are Susan, Christina, and Susan's friend Sheila. I will start with Sheila, as she has much less screentime and plot significance. Sheila is Susan's work buddy at the diner she hosts at, as well as her drinking buddy and, based on how the script carries things, maybe her fuck buddy? Sheila spends much of her screentime drunk and/or hungover, and Henry condemns her as an alcoholic, because he's Hollywood Child Precocious and that means he's kind of a heartless little shit--rather what I'd imagine Jude from Alien Lover was like at eleven. He also basically calls her ugly. They make up in the end, but it seems a little tacked on and honestly you just feel a little bad for her.

Significantly more problematic is the character of Susan, who displays an uncomfortable amount of dependence on her son. He does her taxes, secures the family nest egg, and honestly makes most of her decisions. It's so bad she even refuses to sign his consent forms when he's hospitalized for a seizure without consulting him first. She is effectively the child and he is effectively the parent, and they have an explicit conversation in his last days about how she doesn't even know how to be a mother to Peter without Henry's guidance. I can understand letting one be consumed with love for one's son and being proud of their considerable intelligence, especially when it makes one's life much easier, but this is unnatural, which is not a word I use very often. There's a different type of movie waiting in the wings with this sort of dynamic, with a much more sinister and manipulative Henry, perhaps one who caused his mother's dependence on him...but I kid. It just seems weird that a grown woman is viewed in the movie's eyes as being inferior to an eleven-year-old boy.

And then there is Christina. I'd consider her one of the pivotal characters, considering, y'know, she's at the heart of the film's conflict. And also she's an abuse victim. But she gets nothing in this movie. She gets a few murmurs, and one significant conversation, but aside from that we know she is...nice? Henry thought so, at any rate. Oh, she's also a ballerina, and she tips off the school principal that she's being abused because she looks sad while dancing. Christina is never anything more than a plot prop, a living Macguffin, a damsel in distress for whom we are supposed to feel glurgy sadness. Combine this with the vagueness of the abuse, and there's little reason for us to be invested. To give a female character a submissive and weak personality like Susan is one thing--it's another entirely for one of the female leads to have no personality whatsoever. That's what I've seen crop up in those White Woman books which this movie feels so akin to; casual, dismissive, unaware, and glamorized sexism. Fuck you, 21st Century literary fiction. You're usually neither progressive nor authentic.

Now that's a lot of flaws, and I was pretty harsh in presenting them. I don't hate this movie, though--I enjoyed it a ton. The person I saw this with said immediately that the individual scenes all usually work, clunky dialogue and all, even if they add up to something very bizarre holistically. I think that fact is actually what makes the movie. It's like a string of mini-movies that lead towards one big movie that makes relatively little sense. It's not like something like, say, Time of the Apes, which wears its status as a hyper-compressed TV series on its sleeve. And it's not like Bloody Wednesday, where it's a bunch of increasingly nonsensical additions that add up to something that feels like a dream. This movie feels like it couldn't possibly have enough material for several TV episodes and it's generally grounded in reality. Until you think about it.

All I know is that I'm happy I got to see this in theaters. For all the crap I gave the dialogue, there are some pretty clever lines in here, if not some genius ones; and I was fond of the tiny Naomi Watts/Lee Pace romance that cropped up here and there, plus the sexual tension between Susan and Sheila. And the acting is awesome all throughout, even from and even especially from the kids. You'll laugh at this movie like you do with "bad" movies, but it won't be quite the same. I wish I knew what the precise feeling was, but I'll fun finding out when it hits home video. Join me, won't you?

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Image Source: IMP Awards

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