Do you remember your school days? The joys and pains of being a child? The makers of The Book of Henry don’t. Instead, from the outset, clichés abound. A voiceover from the title character. Bully trips main kid over on the school bus. Teacher asks a probing question, only for the students to be saved by the bell, a cliché so clichéd it was clichéd in a 90s TV show. All this within five minutes of the 11-year-old attempts-Da Vinci-meets-Tank Girl inspired opening credits.
The titular Henry is a savant, using his many gifts to play the stock markets and raise his Gears Of War obsessed mom and not-so-gifted little brother. Naomi Watts plays the waitress single mom with a look on her face that says 'this’ll make ‘em forget Diana'. They live next door to Henry’s crush, Christina (the girl you might recognise from Dance Moms or mini-me Sia), cared for by her nurturing and kindly stepfather. Just kidding. It’s a film, so he’s a complete wrong ‘un, known as Glenn or Mr Sickleman to the kiddiewinks. Sickleman, as the director has noted, because he’s a ‘sick lil' man’.
The director is Colin Trevorrow of Jurassic World fame. His aim for this film seems to cobble together the worst parts of Spielbergien childhood nostalgia, Wes Anderson timelessness, Nicholas Sparks schmaltz and Death Wish-style vigilantism. Unfortunately, neither he nor screenwriter Gregg Hurwitz have ever met a child and can’t find a pair of goggles too quirky.
The schmaltz kicks in at the halfway point when the screenwriter gives Henry an inoperable tumour, possibly brought on by Naomi Watts’ ukulele playing. Cue scenes of rampant tears and a not-at-all awkward kiss given to dying 11 year old Henry by trashy alcoholic waitress Sarah Silverman.
It’s the second half where Watts goes full Charles Bronson, finding plans to bring down the sick lil man next door, all in Henry’s book, natch. See, Glenn has been abusing his daughter, fully visible to Henry and now his mom through the window. The whole plot would have fallen apart if he’d have just drawn a curtain. The book telepathically predicts mommy's every thought. Go to the police, she thinks. Can’t, he’s the chief. Want to purchase an illegal sniper rifle? Make sure you name check ‘Dominic’ - this’ll bypass laws that money can’t.
When it comes time for mommy to take out sick lil man, she would have got away with it, if it wasn’t for those pesky Rube Goldberg contraptions, left by Henry to teach mom an important life lesson - don’t sniper your next door neighbour from a tree house, even if your dead son tells you to. Or something.