The Book of Henry

Posted on June 15, 2017 at 5:37 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness, drug reference
Violence/ Scariness: Theme of child sexual abuse, attempted murder, suicide, medical issues, sad death, peril
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 17, 2017
Date Released to DVD: October 2, 2017
Copyright 2017 Focus Features

I’ve got a pretty high tolerance for movies, even syrupy ones, about super-gifted kids and am generally willing to give them some leeway as metaphor or fairy tale.  So I’m okay with “August Rush,” “Pay it Forward,” “A Monster Calls,” etc.  But “The Book of Henry” crosses the line from syrupy to smarmy, and where it wanted to be endearing, it was annoying, and then infuriating.

Jaeden Lieberher, who is making a career out of playing preternaturally wise and powerful children, has the title role as Henry, an 11-year old who is the kind of genius only found in movies. Not only is he a total braniac who understands architecture, finance, electronics, existential conundrums, weapons, and engineering, he has a rapier wit and knows the difference between different kinds of tumors and can read an MRI. Furthermore, he is a near-empath who instantly understands the people he cares about. In other words, he is not a character; he is a symbol and his purpose in the story is to give other characters important life lessons.

Henry has a younger brother, Pete (Jacob Tremblay of “Room”), who is in the movie to play the role of Normal Kid. And they have a mother, Susan (Naomi Watts), who is loving and devoted but irresponsible. Henry is the grown-up in the family, stopping at a phone booth after school to place complicated brokerage orders.

Let’s pause for a moment on that last point. Yes, I said phone booth. Even though the movie takes place sort of now (there are cell phones, a coffeemaker, video games, and a super-duper weapon), it has a deliberately retro feel. Henry and Pete use old walkie-talkies, barely a glimpse of a laptop (who needs one; Henry’s a walking Wikipedia). Susan is a waitress at a diner that could be out of the 1950’s, though her boss (“SNL’s” Bobby Moynihan) offers to pay her by direct deposit. You do not need to be Henry to figure out that this is supposed to lull us into cutesy-ness.

Henry has a crush on the girl next door, a classmate named Christina (Sia muse Maddie Ziegler), who lives with her stepfather, Glenn (Dean Norris), the town’s police commissioner. Henry senses that Glenn is abusing Christina. When Glenn’s position of power makes it impossible to protect her through official channels, he comes up with a dangerous plan to keep her safe.

To say more would be to risk spoilers, so I will just note that pretty much everything that happens after that is intended to be touching and poignant but  none of it is .   Lee Pace does his best with the thankless role of Doctor Perfect, who would make Prince Charming look like the guy who gets eliminated in the first episode of “The Bachelorette.” And Sarah Silverman adds some sass as Susan’s best pal, who joins her in wisecracks about how they aren’t rich and in getting drunk.  Christina has a lovely dance number in the school talent show.  And Watts is marvelous as always.  But the story’s preposterousness and manipulation thwarts their best efforts to provide some grounding.

Parents should know that the movie’s themes include child sexual abuse, attempted vigilante murder, and a very sad death of a child, and suicide. There is some strong language, a drug reference, and drinking and drunkenness.

Family discussion: What should Susan have done about the couple in the store? What made Susan change her mind?

If you like this, try: “Phenomenon” and “Disturbia”

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DVD/Blu-Ray Family Issues Stories About Kids

Midnight Special

Posted on March 31, 2016 at 5:58 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some violence and action
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence including guns, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: April 1, 2016
Date Released to DVD: June 20, 2016 ASIN: B01F5ZY4G0

Copyright Warner Brothers 2016
Copyright Warner Brothers 2016
What would happen if someone appeared with strange special powers? What if the person with special powers was an eight year old boy? Would a religious group consider him an angel or maybe a savior? Would the government consider him a threat? How would his parents protect him and teach him what he needed to know when in so many ways he would be teaching them?

In “Take Shelter,” writer/director Jeff Nichols gave us Michael Shannon as a man with apocalyptic visions that might have been a mental breakdown or might have been the real thing. In “Midnight Special,” Shannon again stars, this time as the father of a boy named Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher of “St. Vincent”) who is being hunted both by a religious cult and the US government.

It takes a while to figure this out. We first hear an Amber alert about a missing child who has been taken from his parents and then we see two men in a seedy motel, the window covered with cardboard, and we have to suspect the worst. The child is sitting on the floor wearing goggles and industrial-grade earmuffs and is covered by a sheet.

It looks grim and gruesome, but as soon as Roy (Shannon) picks up the boy, it is clear that they are devoted to one another. Although the Amber alert referred to a couple as the missing boy’s parents, it is Roy who is Alton’s father. Roy and Alton are traveling with a man named Lucas (Joel Edgerton), who seems very committed to protecting them but not very knowledgeable. He often asks Roy questions about Alton, not to pry or to get to know him better but to be better able to protect the boy. At this point, we still don’t know what they are protecting him from, or why anyone would want to hurt him.

A religious group with women in the pastel prairie attire, with intricate braided hair, is led by Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepherd), who leads his congregation in a recital of a string of numbers. Their prayer service is interrupted by the FBI, which takes them all away in buses for questioning. They each send search teams to find the boy. Roy and Lucas take desperate measures to keep him from being found. An official from the NSA (Adam Driver, excellent) tries to figure out how an eight year old boy has access to encrypted national security data.

We begin to learn about Alton’s gifts and vulnerabilities and about the stress both have brought to Roy and the boy’s mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst). Lieberher is outstanding, with a gravity and dignity that tell us more about Alton than the special effects. In the movie’s most touching moment, he tells his father not to worry about him. “I like worrying about you,” Roy says.

Parents should know that this film has violence including guns, characters injured and killed, supernatural destruction, adult and child characters in peril, and brief strong language.

Family discussion: Why does Roy say he likes worrying about his son? Who is in the best position to protect someone like Alton?

If you like this, try: “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and, for a silly and raunchy story with a similar plot, try “Paul”

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DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Science-Fiction Spiritual films
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