It's been 16 years since Naomi Watts first knocked our socks off in David Lynch's "Mulholland Dr.," the kind of dream showcase that an actor can count herself lucky to encounter once in a lifetime. It's no knock on her talent to suggest that she has never had a role as rich, extreme or demanding since, though her brilliant performances in pictures as different as "21 Grams," "We Don't Live Here Anymore," "King Kong" and "The Impossible" found her scaling the estimable peak of her powers nonetheless.
To judge by the acclaim for Watts' work on the newly resuscitated "Twin Peaks," her reunion with Lynch was fortuitous and long overdue, especially since her big-screen choices have been significantly less inspired of late. But Watts rarely seems to falter, even when her movies do. Such is her gift for emotional transparency, her ability to pull you in close from the first frame, that she tends to emerge from even the most indifferent material ("The Sea of Trees," anyone?) miraculously unscathed.
And so it goes with "The Book of Henry," a grotesquely phony and manipulative new drama that places Watts' talents in service of a dubious emotional cause. Directed by Colin Trevorrow and written by the crime novelist and comic-book writer Gregg Hurwitz, the movie follows Susan Carpenter (Watts), a small-town waitress and single mother who endures a bizarre crucible of suffering set in motion by her elder son, an 11-year-old prodigy named Henry (Jaeden Lieberher).
Genius is a quality that Hollywood likes to spotlight but rarely confronts with any real depth or understanding, and so it's no surprise that Henry's remarkable mind will express itself in the most winningly precocious ways imaginable. He spars with his teacher (Geraldine Hughes) and puts his well-meaning school principal (Tonya Pinkins) in her place. He looks after his vulnerable younger brother, Peter (Jacob Tremblay), showing him how to build elaborate Rube Goldberg devices that inevitably become a metaphor for the movie's own absurdly contrived connect-the-dots narrative.
Most of all, Henry is a bedrock of support for his hopelessly addled mother, and not just in a vague Junior-knows-best kind of way. A financial whiz, he has amassed a rich-enough stock portfolio that Susan could easily quit her waitressing job (where she works alongside a boozily dependable best friend played by Sarah Silverman) and focus on her true passion as an author of children's books. But grown-up problems aren't so easily solved, as Henry will learn when he tries to free his next-door neighbor, Christina (Maddie Ziegler), from the clutches of her physically abusive stepfather (played with tightly coiled menace by "Breaking Bad's" Dean Norris).
To describe the plot any further would risk both your indignation and your incredulous laughter. Suffice to say that "The Book of Henry" has no compunction about milking child abuse, terminal illness and family grief for cheap emotional uplift and the kind of spiritual sanctimony that brings the unwelcome specter of "Pay It Forward" to mind. As Henry nudges his mother into a rescue mission so dangerous and stupefyingly implausible that you barely have enough time to register its staggering moral idiocy, the movie leans all the more heavily on its actors to shoulder the burden of telling an impossible story.
"Book of Henry" is hardly the first time that Watts has played a grief-stricken mother; nor is it the first time that Lieberher ("Midnight Special") has embodied a child of exceptional gifts, or that Tremblay ("Room") has played a kid too adorable for this mean old world. But those earlier associations, far from lending the story any real emotional conviction, serve only to throw its essential callousness into high relief. At no point do the filmmakers seem to evince any real interest in the emotional misery they inflict on their characters; trauma here is just the quickest means to an uplifting end, or in this case, a montage's worth of wretched epiphanies.
This is the third feature directed by Trevorrow, who made his debut with the charmingly offbeat "Safety Not Guaranteed" (2012) and subsequently received the keys to the "Jurassic Park" kingdom. (He's presently working on the ninth chapter of the ongoing "Star Wars" saga.) "The Book of Henry" is something of a calculated return to indie form, and as such it will almost certainly be seen as a small and inconsequential project by comparison, a modest time-killer in between gargantuan visual-effects spectacles.
That may be true, but the real lesson to be drawn from this uniquely terrible movie actually flies in the face of that reductive industry perspective. After the soulless mega-hit that was "Jurassic World," there is little doubt that Trevorrow knows how to keep a box office juggernaut running on schedule. Whether he can now pull off the much harder task of telling an intimate, character-driven story that touches the heart and mind honestly is another question entirely — one to which even the sweet, well-meaning and frankly insufferable Henry may not know the answer.
'The Book of Henry'
Rating: PG-13, for thematic elements and brief strong language
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Playing: In general release