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Jaeden Lieberher (left) and Jacob Tremblay play brothers in “The Book of Henry.” | Focus Features

Manipulative ‘Book of Henry’ deserves to be slammed

SHARE Manipulative ‘Book of Henry’ deserves to be slammed
SHARE Manipulative ‘Book of Henry’ deserves to be slammed

I am about to kick your dog.

I am going to tell you that “The Book of Henry,” which many people are likely going to go see hoping for a moving experience, what with its talented cast and gifted, adorable child actors, is in reality a manipulative exercise in emotional bullying.

That may sound a bit rough, and maybe it is; the movie has some bright spots. But in the end they aren’t enough.

The tricky part is, I can’t tell you why. Director Colin Trevorrow and screenwriter Gregg Hurwitz have some surprising tricks up their sleeves, and it would be unforgivable to give them away. But I can say that this is a movie that will stop at absolutely nothing to play on your heartstrings.

Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Jaeden Lieberher is good as Henry, an 11-year-old genius, and Jacob Tremblay — the boy in “Room” — is just as good if not better as Peter, his achingly normal little brother Peter, who longs for just a hint of his brother’s talents. As for the adults, Naomi Watts, Dean Norris, Lee Pace, Sarah Silverman — they’re all quite good.

In other projects. They’re fine here, too, but given the material they are mostly willing accomplices to the kidnapping of your feelings.

Henry is not just academically gifted. He’s the only real adult in his home. It’s never clear if Susan (Watts), his mother, was more mature when Henry was younger, but clearly since he began to show his gifts she’s coasted at best, or regressed. (Maybe it was after her husband left her and the kids.) She works in a diner and plays video games at home, while Henry handles the bills (and makes a small fortune on savvy stock investments).

Have some fun, his mother implores. Lighten up on the work load. Get into some trouble. He’s too loving a son to tell her someone has to be the grown-up.

Despite the challenges, it’s a loving home. But Henry grows more and more convinced that trouble is brewing next door. That’s where Christina (Maddie Ziegler, of “Dance Moms”) lives with her stepfather Glenn (Norris). Henry believes Glenn is physically abusive toward Christina, and has reported all the telltale signs to the school principal, to no avail.

So he decides to take matters into his own hands. (Why wouldn’t he tell his mother?)

Dicey business at best, but Trevorrow and Hurwitz throw some king-sized wrenches into Henry’s plan. That’s all that can be said without spoiling things. Plot developments come fast and sometimes furious. Often they’re heavy-handed and out of nowhere. It’s a shame, because Trevorrow — who will direct the last film in the latest “Star Wars” trilogy — has made a fine-looking film. The town where everyone lives has the classic look of a place where everyone feels safe at night. Except for the people who don’t.

Some movies are kind of fake good — at first blush they seem to have all the ingredients in place to be successful. But on further inspection, it’s all a trick. That’s the kind of movie this is.

I’ve changed my mind. I’m not kicking your dog. “The Book of Henry” is. And it wants you to enjoy it.

Bill Goodykoontz, USA TODAY Network

★1⁄2

Focus Featurespresents a film directed by Colin Trevorrow and written by Gregg Hurwitz. Rated PG-13 (for thematic elements and brief strong language). Running time: 105 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.

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