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Film / The Book of Henry

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The Book of Henry is a 2017 drama film directed by Colin Trevorrow.

Henry Carpenter (Jaeden Lieberher) is an eleven year-old boy genius, living with and managing the finances of his mother Susan (Naomi Watts) and his younger brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay). Becoming suspicious of the next door neighbor Glenn (Dean Norris), Henry discovers that his classmate Christina (Maddie Ziegler) is being abused by her stepfather. Impeded at every legal avenue, Henry hatches a plan to rescue Christina and punish his neighbor, but circumstances emerge to result in his inexperienced mother having to carry out the plot.


The Book of Henry contains examples of:

  • Actor Allusion:
    • Jaeden Leiberher played an absurdly gifted child who is separated from his mother at the end in Midnight Special.
    • Naomi Watts as a slightly neglectful parent whose Establishing Character Moment is her arriving late to pick her kids up? The Ring comes to mind.
    • Naomi Watts plays the mother of a kid played by Jacob Tremblay, and at the end, she adopts another child. In Shut In, she adopts a kid, played by Jacob Tremblay.
  • Adults Are Useless: The school principal refuses to take Henry's word against Christina's abuse, and Henry ends up explaining his own diagnosis to his stunned doctor. That's not to mention his mother being several levels of incompetent. But the film eventually subverts this when the principal realises her mistake, and Susan also successfully challenges Glenn.
  • Affectionate Nickname:
    • Susan calls her boys 'Enchilada 1 & 2' and Christina 'butterfly' by the end.
    • Sheila calls Henry 'Hank', though he's annoyed by this.
  • Artistic License – Law:
    • Minors are not allowed to trade stocks. Henry probably would have been able to work from his computer if the account was in Susan's name, but it's all but outright stated that it's all Henry's work, including calling a broker by public phone and having to order his mom to pay attention as he tries to explain how the online exchange works while he's in the hospital and she's understandably grieving by his bedside.
    • The school principal refuses to act on Henry's claim that Christina is abused at home, claiming she needs some kind of further proof. School officials are required to report all suspicion of child abuse to Child Protective Services. It is not within their responsibility or authority to try to assess their credibility. (It is mentioned Glenn has connections within the CPS that could get him out of problems there, but that's a separate matter.)
  • Beauty Is Never Tarnished: Although Henry and Susan repeatedly claim they've seen bruises on Christina, her face or body never display any.
  • Blonde, Brunette, Redhead: The Carpenters. Susan (blonde), Henry (brunette) and Peter (redhead).
  • Broken Aesop:
    • Susan's arc centers on her realizing that Henry, for all his intelligence, is still just a child... except that Henry is portrayed as so absurdly hypercompetent and seemingly justified in all his legal and financial advice that his age is basically no factor. And as pointed out below, regardless of how it ended up happening Glenn's death DID result in things working out perfectly.
    • Regardless of how it ended up happening, Christina did got a perfectly happy ending from her father dying, even being a perfect Replacement Goldfish for Henry. So remember kids, if you want to make absolutely sure that someone will prosper, Murder Is the Best Solution!
    • The movie tries to end with this idea that even though Henry died he improved the lives of others...except the last act of the film involves Susan learning to disregard Henry because he's a child and Glenn ends up dying through something Henry had no factor in. Meaning that aside from the adoption papers Henry forged, Christina ends up being adopted by the Carpenters by pure chance.
  • Cell Phones Are Useless: Despite some examples of retro tech, such as Henry using a Polaroid camera, the film is set in the modern day and characters are seen with cellphones. As consequence, it's never explained why Henry couldn't have simply recorded video of Glenn abusing his child, which is witnessed by him and Susan repeatedly. This is likely an artifact of the screenplay being written over 20 years ago.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • Early in the film, Henry amuses his brother with a snow machine, which Peter then uses for his magic act in the third act.
    • Christina has a snow globe of a ballerina in her room. At the talent show, she performs a ballet routine.
    • Henry hearing "let's see how Dominic feels about that" in the gun shop, which Susan later uses to purchase an unlicensed gun.
    • The Rube Goldberg Machine that Henry sets up at his tree house earlier in the film triggers accidentally just as Susan gets ready to shoot Glenn, and the fact that it was meant to deploy baby pictures of the brothers when they were babies reminds Susan that Henry was just a child, making her finally decide not to fire.
  • Coming-of-Age Story: The late-bloomer type. The movie functions as one for Susan, who ends the story a more competent parent than before.
  • Complexity Addiction: Henry seems to love making complex things to show off his genius such as Rube Goldberg Devices and his convoluted plan to kill Glenn.
  • Contrived Coincidence:
    • The first time Henry enters a gun shop, he overhears how to purchase a weapon illegally.
    • Glenn always commits his abuse of Christina in the same room, with the window open, while Henry or Susan are awake to see him do it, while never noticing them.
    • A lot of viewers felt the ending scene where Susan accidentally activates a Rube Goldberg Machine showing baby pictures of Henry was this. Because why would Henry have something like that set up?
  • Death of a Child: Henry's death is the Game Changer of the film halfway through the story.
  • Deconstructed Character Archetype: Henry deconstructs the "Child Genius" by being insufferable, thinking that whatever solutions he can think of are the only solutions available, that said solutions are perfect, and ultimately still sticking to a childish vision of the world — one where Murder Is the Best Solution is actually applicable. Even if everything else comes out A-OK thanks to Glenn killing himself, had she followed Henry's plan to the letter and it had actually worked, Susan still would have had Glenn's death on her hands and there's no telling how well she would have been able to cope. He also deconstructs Too Good for This Sinful Earth by the sheer fact that Susan, led at least partially by grief, accepts Henry's crazy plan as gospel truth up until the last possible second.
  • Decoy Protagonist: Henry dies halfway through the film, leading to Susan becoming the real protagonist.
  • Double Standard: Rape, Female on Male: When Sheila visits Henry while he’s in the hospital, they suddenly start making out, despite that Henry is eleven and Sheila is at least thirty years his senior. This is even more inexplicable considering the plot of the movie centers around punishing a middle-aged man for sexually abusing a girl Henry’s age.
  • Flat Character: Christina is this in spades. While her lack of emotion can be excused by her depression brought on by her abuse, she is given no agency or further characterization, and no other characters make an effort to empower her in any way, despite being the primary motivation for Henry, and later Susan, to go through a plot to murder her stepfather Glenn.
  • Flatline: While at the hospital, Henry pulls off his heart rate monitor so he can leave his bed and see out the window, causing a nurse to run over in a panic. Strangely, this didn't happen at all when it's revealed that Henry snuck out the night before to record the tapes for his mom.
  • Gambit Roulette: Henry's plan, in the end, seriously depended on way too many factors going just right in a way that it's hard to believe he actually planned for every eventuality (which is a thing he actually liked to say), even after he made sure to take into account details like the field of view of the cameras on the gun shop. The plan completely falls apart at the very last second when Susan (thanks to the Rube Goldberg Machine that Henry set earlier) finally recalls that Henry was just a kid and decides not to shoot, which makes the fact that Glenn ended up becoming a Self-Disposing Villain even more of a Deus ex Machina.
    • The two biggest flaws is that Henry's plan hinges on Glenn going out into the woods in the middle of the night to investigate a random noise he hears from inside his house, during a very narrow time window. The plan utterly fails if Glenn does anything that keeps him from doing that, like sleeping, taking a shower, watching a movie, cooking dinner, or just not being home. And keep in mind that from Glenn's point of view, this is an evening he has to himself, as his daughter is going to be away for most of it, so the plan hinges on Glenn literally not doing anything with his free evening. The second biggest flaw is that the plan revolves into Glenn's body falling into a creek that seems to be maybe 2 feet deep at most and that creek sweeping the body away so no one ever can find out where Glenn died.
  • Game Changer: Halfway through the film, Henry develops a malignant brain tumor and dies.
  • Gamer Chick: Henry chides Susan for playing Gears of War too much.
  • Hypocrite: Henry spends his first scenes monologuing about how people can be jerks or good... and then he insults a student for not being mature enough for his standards. Then, he snarks to his teacher about how being among other students is good for his social development, and goes on to play checkers with the lunch lady.
  • Implied Love Interest: Dr. Daniels is implied to have some kind of connection to Susan, and the movie ends with a Maybe Ever After between them.
  • Informed Attribute: The movie is prone to telling the viewer about things, rather than showing.
    • The more egregious example is Christina's abuse, which is never seen on screen (we get Glenn entering Christina's room in two different moments and then a horrified Reaction Shot both from Henry and Susan, but it could have just as easily be them reacting to an awful accident), nor is any evidence of said abuse ever shown to the viewer despite both Henry and Susan insisting that Henry has been collecting all of said evidence. Even the fact that she looks depressed in some scenes (including her dance recital at the climax, which is all that Janice needs to see to finally have a Heel Realization and become the Non-Protagonist Resolver) could have just as easily come from being abused as it could have come from her mother dying with very little change to the plot.
    • Susan being a neglecting parent, or at the very least apathetic, is also never shown to the viewer.
    • The family is supposed to have money problems Henry is trying to fix/actually fixing with his stock market trading, such that Susan must work as a waitress rather than focus on her passion of being a children's book writer, but they live in a nice house, can afford a new car but choose not to buy one, and Susan does not worry at all over the cost of Henry's brain surgery, even though a waitress would not have health insurance good enough to cover that, assuming she had it all.
    • Henry himself is subject to most of this - characters repeating how everyone loves Henry, yet Henry is never shown to have any friends, and tends to come off as abrasive, condescending and patronizing to everyone he talks to.
  • Insufferable Genius: Henry. All over. He spends a lot of screen time with his mother calling her out for being a bit aloof, for not wanting to change her car, for spending some time each day playing games and for working as a waitress, and his opening scenes have him improvising a school show-and-tell just to turn it into an insulting rant to a student and then snark to his teacher how being around the other kids is good to his social development. And then it turns out that he could curb-stomp the lunch lady at checkers any time he wants but he plays with her just to have something to do during lunch hour.
  • Jerkass: Henry is supposed to be the one who wears the pants in his family, but he comes off as belittling everybody he talks to, from his teacher to his principal to his own mother.
  • Knight of Cerebus: While the film starts off as a light-hearted family drama about a genius kid living with his childish mother, the tone quickly drops into tragedy and suspense when it is revealed that Henry's neighbor and antagonist of the film, Glenn, has been horribly abusing his step-daughter. Glenn's crimes shape the rest of the film's plot, with Henry choosing to devote the remainder of his life to killing Glenn, as there is no practical way to legally bring him to justice. A far cry from what the up-beat posters and cheery opening sequence implied.
  • Lady Drunk: Susan's friend Sheila, who is drunk or about to drink in every scene she's in.
  • Lecherous Stepparent: The plot of the film, as it were, to centers around a plot to kill Glenn Sickleman in order to save his step daughter from being abused, presumably sexually. When someone refers to him as her father at one point, she very pointedly corrects that person and calls him her step father.
  • Lost Aesop: The movie seems like it's trying to set up a message about apathy but thanks to various factors listed above in Broken Aesop the film loses its message.
  • Lured into a Trap: At the climax, Glenn hears an unusual whistling and exits his house to search for the source, leading him to a walkie-talkie in a tree in the woods right in the range of Susan's sniper rifle and where his body can be easily dumped into the river. (Curiously, the distance is such that Glenn could've just as easily heard Susan whistling from her perch, or her sniper rifle practice the day before.)
  • Mood Whiplash: A frequent criticism of the film is that it suffers from this. At first glance, it seems like an inspirational feel-good family film, and it tries to pass itself off like that at points, but the plot deals with the very big issue of Child Abuse and has Henry's way of solving the issue being murder, not to mention Henry a child dies halfway through the film.
  • Murder Is the Best Solution: Henry comes to conclude that Glenn is immune to any legal means of prosecution and the only way to save Christina is to kill her stepfather and have Susan adopt her.
  • My God, What Have I Done?:
    • While witnessing Christina's ballerina dance, the school principal comes to regret not listening to Henry and calls the cops on Glenn.
    • Susan has this realization at the climax just before she would kill Glenn. Upon seeing Henry's old baby photos, she comes to realize he was ultimately still a child.
  • Non-Answer: During a trip to the grocery store Henry sees a man beating his girlfriend. He wants to get involved but Susan tells him not to. Later that night Henry is lamenting to Susan that they should have done something. When Susan asks Henry what he wanted them to do to help Henry dodges the question, instead going into a speech about how apathy is worse than violence.
  • Non-Protagonist Resolver: Janice, the school principal, finally finds the courage to call the authorities regarding Christina's abuse just in time for the cops (who were already going to Glenn's home because he called them to arrest Susan) to change targets. Glenn decides to blow his head off when he hears it on the radio.
  • Not Blood Siblings: There are romantic undertones to Henry and Christina's interactions, yet his scheme (which he was already planning before his death) amounts to her being adopted by his family and becoming a Carpenter sister.
  • Orange/Blue Contrast: Used on the poster, as seen above.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: The whole plot turns pretty bittersweet because of the fact Susan still had to bury one of her children.
  • Pietà Plagiarism: After crawling out of bed trying to see the sun one last time, Henry dies in his mother's arms.
  • Rape Discretion Shot: We never directly see the nature of Christina's abuse (and it's never clarified whether it's physical or sexual), only Glenn going to her room and Henry or Susan watching through the window looking horrified.
  • Repetitive Name: Dr. Daniels's full name is Dr. Dan Daniels.
  • Rule of Symbolism: Henry gets drawn with a lot of Jesus imagery for whatever reason: the title is based on the naming scheme of books from The Bible, Henry's family name is "Carpenter", his first "disciple" to spread knowledge of his word is named "Peter", and he even dies in a Pietà pose. When Christina is adopted into the family, Susan reads to her and Peter a story of how a flower dies but fertilizes the garden with its body, which appears to be a metaphor for both Jesus dying to elevate mankind and Henry who died but improved the lives of others. The ending with Peter's magic trick preaching the whimsy of Henry with the snow machine also seems to reference the baptism of fire.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Connections!: Glenn looks like a regular (if abusive) man and thus Henry tries to use the regular channels when dealing with the abuse (or worse) problem... and then it turns out that Glenn's brother is the man in charge of the town's Social Services department and Glenn is the Chief of Police. Reality still ensues in the third act, though, when Janice's call means the law is coming for Glenn, and the fact his own brother is asking him in a panic over the phone if what he's being charged for is true makes Glenn understand that his connections are not going to save him.
  • Self-Disposing Villain: When Glenn discovers that Susan knows about his crimes, he calls his police, intending to order her arrest, but hears he's about to be under investigation from them. With cop cars surrounding his home, he kills himself.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: Since Susan ends up not killing Glenn and the Principal ends up reporting Glenn’s abuse, causing him to commit suicide, it ultimately means all of Henry's planning was for the most part completely pointless.
  • Simple Solution Won't Work: When the Carpenter family notice that the little girl who lives next door is abused by her stepfather, they do try to contact Child Services first, but their complaints fall on deaf ears (the head of the local office is the brother of the stepfather and buys the man's excuses, contacting the Child Services office of another town only leads to the Carpenters being told that they are in a different jurisdiction, the stepfather is the chief of police so calling the cops is out, and Henry telling the principal of his school to file the complaint is only met with extreme reluctance by the principal). This leads to Henry deciding that Murder Is the Best Solution and making his plan in a notebook (the titular book), which has extensive notes explaining to his mother why it's the only option that will work, when she questions it as she's reading the book. Notably, the "simple solution" technically does works, but only when the principal finally gets over her reluctance and contacts Child Services completely independently of the Carpenters' actions at the climax.
  • Smart People Play Chess: Or checkers, in Henry's case. With the lunch lady, which means that not even at lunch hour he cares about interacting with his classmates. And he's able to curb-stomp the lunch lady with a single move the moment he has to leave in a hurry, which is yet another showcase of both his smarts and how much of a jerk he is.
  • Social Services Does Not Exist: Played with. Henry tries to contact Social Services to deal with the problem, but it turns out that Glenn's brother is the man in charge of the town's Social Services department and a simple "everything's fine" is all that it takes for him to stop investigating. Susan goes a bit further in her own attempt by calling the Social Services of next town over for them to do their own investigation, but they absolutely refuse to do anything. It takes Janice the principal calling to file her own complaint for Social Services to be forced to do something, and Glenn's understanding that the law is about to come down on him like a 16-ton anvil is what makes him decide to kill himself.
  • Talent Show: At the third act of the film, the school hosts a talent show with skits from kids choir, a kid rapping, Christina's ballerina routine, and Peter's magic show where he metaphorically rains his brother's ashes over the audience.
  • The Tape Knew You Would Say That: After Henry dies from his brain tumor, he leaves a set of pre-recorded tapes and diary notes for his mother to listen to, with instructions on how to carry out Glenn's assassination. They turn out to be ludicrously precise, to the point that they can predict when she took a wrong turn on the street or is hesitating over a task. Even his notebook is just as exact, with the next page always being the matching response to Susan's questions. Only once does any of his tapes ever guess wrong what she was about to do — that being pull the trigger.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Deconstructed. It's because of being overwhelmed with grief that Susan decides to accept Henry's plan to begin with.
  • Troubling Unchildlike Behavior: Henry exhibits this when he jumps to a plan to murder his next door neighbor to save Christina from abuse rather than gathering concrete evidence.
  • Undignified Death: Henry spends his final moments before the cancer finally takes him pitifully trying to open his room's window shades and begging his mom to let him see the sky one more time. After a long while being Wise Beyond Their Years to the point of being insufferable, Henry showcases he is still a little boy.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: Glenn is the police commissioner, and thereby has too good standing for Christina and Henry's school principal to consider investigating. His brother also turns out to be in charge of the local child services, and the next county over doesn't even bother sending their child services worker at all when called.
  • Wise Beyond Their Years: Henry to an almost exaggerated extent – who is so good at math that he takes care of the bills, and has even played the stock markets so that his mother is basically set for life. The movie then however moves into Deconstruction territory showing that despite all his intelligence and competence, Henry still has the mind of a child and his solution to kill Glenn was hardly a sensible one.