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film review

Jaeden Lieberher stars as the title character in The Book of Henry family drama that segues, somewhat unsuccessfully, into a small-scale thriller.

The 11-year-old title character in The Book of Henry passes his mother a secret notebook filled with pictures and calculations describing an elaborate scheme to rescue their next-door neighbour from her sexually abusive stepfather. Those line drawings, sepia-coloured things that are one part Leonardo and two parts Professor Branestawm, are used in the opening credits in an exquisite piece of animation full of beguiling charm. If only the film delivered on that promise.

Part thriller, part sentimental drama, The Book of Henry is mainly a cute-kid movie for a grown-up audience – and it features not one but two of the darlings. First there's Henry himself (Jaeden Lieberher, affably earnest even in the film's most cloying moments). He's a pale and lanky grade-school genius with a playhouse full of improbable inventions and a head full of adult wisdom. Then there's his adorable little brother, Peter: The scrappy younger sibling struggling to keep up is played by Jacob Tremblay of Room, proving equally irresistible in a much easier part.

The wise and brilliant Henry protects Peter from schoolyard bullies and his single mom from economic hardship: he is making enough money investing in the markets that Susan could quit waiting tables if she wanted. But instead she sticks with her job at the diner – Naomi Watts makes the most of stilted dialogue to create a good-hearted but struggling single mom – because The Book of Henry is big on whimsy.

This kooky but happy trio lives in a pleasantly cluttered clapboard house in an improbably genteel small town in upstate New York where there's only one school and groceries are still packed in paper bags. In a forest of a backyard, the boys run through the autumn leaves to the playhouse where Henry works on various Rube Goldberg machines, including a contraption that can ice a cupcake. But for novelist-turned-screenwriter Gregg Hurwitz, the oddball pastoral is just the set-up: Henry is convinced that his classmate and neighbour Christina is being abused by her stepfather, but he can't get any adult to pay attention because the man is the local police commissioner.

This story soon turns excessively maudlin and Susan is left trying to carry out the outlandish scheme in the notebook as director Colin Trevorrow manages to shift the movie from family drama to small-scale thriller. But the blackly comic appeal of Henry's grand plan is never quite sweet enough to ice over an improbable plot in which three deeply troubled children all behave in ways that adults just happen to find adorable.

Indeed, as Tremblay's Peter starts to whimper gently at the prospect of an impending tragedy in a way that makes every adult in the audience want to wrap him in a hug, I began to wonder if Hurwitz and Trevorrow had ever met any children. A real kid facing these particular circumstances would have been playing with his cars in a state of complete avoidance – or lying on the floor screaming and pounding his fists.

This sentimentality becomes particularly unsettling in the case of the abused Christina – Maddie Ziegler is saddled with the role of the angelic victim – who barely utters a word for most of the film.

Yes, sexual abuse is often a dark family secret that keeps its traumatized victims silent for years, but this movie is the unusual case where you might actually like to see a little more teaching and preaching from a social drama: the utterly passive Christina needs to seek help and the obvious way to encourage her is not through heroics and melodrama, but with the conversation and friendship that the likeable Susan seems ideally placed to offer from the start. Oh, well, there's always the cupcake-icing machine.