Naomi Watts plays Susan, a struggling single mother of two boys, who has much of her life organized by Henry, her eleven-year-old son. He’s a genius who takes care of the family finances and gives his mom advice on everything, where he is asked or not. The family of his crush lives next door, and has a problem that Henry goes to great lengths to solve.
Naomi Watts perfectly portrays a mother’s guilt, that all of us have felt at one point or another – with the feeling of letting our children down, that we need a break, that life hasn’t gone exactly as planned and that the new Halo game isn’t going to pay itself. She teeters on the verge of barely holding it together and flat out neglect. What parent these days can’t relate to that?
Sarah Silverman plays Susan’s best friend. She is a counterweight for the family, adding some comic relief, and serving as an alternate standard by which to judge their worn out single mother.
As wonderful as these two actresses are for holding the main plot together, the kids give the film its personality. Maddie Zieger, Jacob Tremblay and Jaeden Lieberher (Henry) are the main children in the film. They all shine. Naomi had the opportunity to work with both Jacob and Jaeden in Shut In and St. Vincent, respectively.
I also have to give a shout out to Lee Pace, who you hardly recognize from his Lord of the Rings, Twilight and Guardian of the Galaxy characters. He pops into a few scenes. I usually ignore the classification of “next James Bond” when describing actors. But I am casting my ballot out here. Every time Mr. Pace appears on screen, you stop breathing. I don’t know if they allow non-British actors in the role, but he should be the next James Bond.
I’m having a difficult time categorizing this movie. It is one part really intense after-school special, one-part adult suspense thriller. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry and you’ll be at the edge of your seat with suspense. Then you’ll laugh and cry and be on the edge of your seat again. The story veers off path at points. Half way through, I was thinking “what happened to the first plot line?” But life doesn’t have a straight path, we often are taking two steps forward for every one step back. The movie manages to shift between intensity and tension-breaking-funny effortlessly.
In May I had the pleasure of screening Book of Henry with an accompanying Q&A, with Naomi Watts and producer, Carla Hacken. Unfortunately, I can’t divulge much about the Q&A without giving away the many secrets in the film. Naomi Watts drew inspiration for her character from the long hours and days that she is often away from her own two boys. “I’ve played good mothers and bad mothers and there’s no such thing. We just do the best we can. We all signed on for a life time of guilt. No matter how much of an over achiever you are, or how good you are or what you’ve sacrificed, it’s never enough.” She said as a parent she is known to be a pushover and when she is not on set, she is playing catch up for the ever important “presence” that we all guilt over. When asked if they would make the decision to put a high achieving child in a special program, both actress and producer said they would want their child more well-rounded and socialized than focused on schooling.
Producer Carla Hacken, spoke about the creative process involved in the final script. The writer, Greg Hurwitz, is known for his thrillers. But Hacken acknowledged that the second half of the original script didn’t quite worked for her, so they reworked it. If you see the movie, you’ll know exactly what scene she is talking about. The change in story transforms the movie from mere entertainment, to art. The plot twists bring a different sensibility and energy to an extremely worn out Hollywood genre. It pushes the boundaries we expect from the typical thriller, making the audience respect their own daily lives and struggles.
It’s refreshing to see a director such as Colin Trevorrow, of Jurassic World fame, choose a film like this. Rarely in life are our monsters four-stories tall. This project dispenses with a green screen and cgi, to apply basic suspense elements to an everyday story. Attention is drawn to a real small town struggle, where powerful men can prey upon the weak with the backing of their peers and the system.
With a PG-13 rating mostly due to language, this movie isn’t really for kids, nor would they want to see it. The film is not a fast paced, mindless, action thriller, nor is the story a complicated espionage thriller. But it is an everyday thriller that will hit you hard. Sorry, that’s all I can say. I give it a solid four out of five for its acting, chemistry and original plot twists.
Book of Henry opens June 16, 2017. Check out the trailer and my favorite Sarah Silverman scene below.
Photo Source: Book of Henry/Focus Features