The baffling, amazingly wrongheaded The Book of Henry, explained.

The Book of Henry Is About What?! An Explanation.

The Book of Henry Is About What?! An Explanation.

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
June 20 2017 7:33 AM

The Book of Henry Is About What?! An Explanation.

The Book of Henry
One of these people knows how to play the stock market. We won't say who he is.

Alison Cohen Rosa/Focus Features

This post contains spoilers for The Book of Henry, if “spoils” is a word that can be said to apply here.

The Book of Henry is being trashed by critics—and it probably deserves it. But if you’re curious about the movie critics are calling “insidiously terrible” and “truly wrongheaded, and yet not masochistic enough to actually purchase a ticket, there’s no reason you should be left out of the discussion. Herein, we attempt to answer some questions about The Book of Henry’s messy and confounding strangeness.

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So what is The Book of Henry about?

I’m ... still not really sure I can explain.

Give it a shot.

Here goes.

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It’s about an annoyingly precocious, disrespectfully snarky, and incredibly unlikable 12-year-old kid named Henry who, despite being kind of a condescending jerk to most of the other characters, is well-liked by the people in his life. He also basically takes care of his little brother (Jacob Tremblay) and his mother, Susan (Naomi Watts), who depends on him to run her life.

Henry has a crush on the girl next door, Christina (Maddie Ziegler), whom he discovers is being abused by her stepfather, Glenn (Dean Norris), who is also the town’s well-respected police commissioner. Henry quickly realizes that no figure of authority—his school’s principal, the child protective services officer, his mother, etc.—is willing to help Christina.

Halfway through the movie, Henry is diagnosed with a tumor and dies but not before telling his little brother that he has to give their mom Henry’s red notebook. That red notebook also comes with a tape and, together, those two things meticulously outline a foolproof plan for how his mother will—not can, will—murder Glenn. Like, with a rifle, an act of homicidal vengeance in service of an incredibly twisted sense of justice.

The Book of Henry is a tonal mix of My Dog Skip and Rear Window. It is the banana and mayonnaise sandwich of movies. It mixes two things that should never be mixed, and it is the whitest thing you will come into contact with on whatever day you happen to consume it.

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God, that sounds nuts! What’s the weirdest part of the movie?

It might be when Naomi Watts’ character says, “We are not murdering the police commissioner, and that is final!” to her young child.

That’s the weirdest part of the movie?

Unless you count three places toward the end of the movie where the Volvo logo is featured prominently on the screen (because who wouldn’t want to associate their product with a story of child abuse and murder).

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So that’s the weirdest part of the movie?

No. The weirdest part is when you realize that Susan, a single mother who works as a waitress at a diner, can afford to raise two young boys and live in a beautiful home in an idyllic suburb because her 12-year-old son takes care of all the finances and is a genius stock investor.

Wow. That’s the weirdes—

No. The weirdest part of 2017’s The Book of Henry is when Henry’s mother’s co-worker and best friend, Sheila (Sarah Silverman), kisses Henry full on the lips while he is on his deathbed.

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But is that the wei—

Yes.

The way you’ve described the movie makes it sound like a mess. Is there any kind of consistent throughline?

Yes. At one point or another, every major character in the film sits on the floor in despair or in deep thought.

What’s the snarkiest and most disrespectful thing the well-liked Henry says to his mother who is trying her best to raise two sons?

After Henry and Susan find Sheila sleeping outside after a long night of drinking, he remarks, “It’s really great how you enable her alcoholism.”

Are there any competent characters in the movie?

Bobby Moynihan plays Naomi Watts’ boss at the diner. He seems to have some semblance of common sense.

How are the performances?

Jacob Tremblay, who is an adorable kid, is great at playing an adorable kid. Naomi Watts gives it her all as the frustratingly inept Susan.

Are there any parts of the movie you liked?

If I had to pick one, relative to the rest of the movie, there’s a sequence toward of the end of the film that isn’t bad. In this sequence, we see Susan going to execute the plan devised by her 12-year-old deceased son to murder their neighbor by shooting him in the head with a sniper intercut with a middle school talent show.

So is there, like, a message to The Book of Henry? Some reason for its existence?

There probably is, but it’s almost impossible to figure out. There’s something in there about being an adult and something else about helping others. However, I submit that the real message of the film is revealed in its climax.

During the aforementioned talent show–slash–incipent murder mashup, Christina, the abused girl next door, performs an emotionally tortured ballet. It is through this dance and the raw emotion it conveys that the school’s principal—who, if you’ll remember, was of one of the figures of authority who didn’t step in and help Christina before—realizes that this young girl really does need help and decides to give child protective services a call.

So, really, The Book of Henry is about the power of dance.

Does Susan end up killing Glenn?

No. She has a moment of realization that what she’s doing is wrong and that she can trust her own judgement, not that that of her deceased 12-year-old son.

Kudos, Susan, for not murdering a man just because your 12-year-old son who was pretty good at playing the stock market and could make some Rube Goldberg–esque machines told you to.

Is The Book of Henry the worst movie you’ve ever seen?

Probably not.

Even after it made you witness Sarah Silverman kiss a young boy?

Please never remind me of that ever again.

Seeing as how this and Jurassic World both suck, would you say Colin Trevorrow doesn’t deserve to direct Star Wars: Episode IX?*

Hey, I liked Jurassic World. But no one deserves anything.

*Correction, June 20: This post originally suggested that Colin Trevorrow is directing Star Wars: Episode XI. He is directing Star Wars: Episode IX.

Austin Elias-de Jesus is a Slate editorial intern.