There’s an odd kind of blood in the water/small kid in the playground effect where, every year, one or two films get singled out and picked on. Often, these are would-be blockbusters that allow critics – and, these days, thanks to social networking, everyone’s a critic – to vent their frustrations on all the rubbishy teflon movies no bad review can scratch (we’re looking at you, Transformers) by tearing to shreds something we’ve all quietly agreed can take the blame for everything. Sometimes, those films strike me as being pretty good – Hudson Hawk, The Lone Ranger, John Carter. Sometimes they’re at least of interest – Last Action Hero, Showgirls. Sometimes they really are duds – The Mummy, recently, or written in shame, Battlefield Earth. From the disproportionately negative press this tiny little film has been getting, it might end up in the write-off bracket without really deserving it. I’d put it in the ‘at least of interest’ category.
I suspect that the real sin of director Colin Trevorrow is that he was elevated from one unassuming indie picture (Safety Not Guaranteed) to big franchise entertainments (Jurassic Thing, Star Wotsit Episode Umpteen They’re Never Going to Stop) but dares to make a small, almost caricature studio boutique movie (from Focus, Universal’s answer to Fox Searchlight) in between the big payoffs. Even Zack Snyder, who deserved all he got with Sucker Punch, didn’t get the harsh ride Trevorrow has got for this strange, admittedly all-over-the-place picture. An original script by comics writer/novelist Gregg Hurwitz, it’s a melange of Nicholas Sparks, Harriet the Spy, The Girl Next Door, Twin Peaks Fire Walk With Me and Little Man Tate … with almost all of the (excellent) cast playing in different registers. After the character-free Jurassic World, it at least tries to engage with some fractured version of reality – though being convincing seems to be the last thing on its mind. It’s as full of ‘no, really?’ moments as any Fast and Furious picture, though its setting is ostensibly a normal small town.
Eleven-year-old genius Henry Carpenter (Jaeden Liberher, playing only slightly less alien than in Midnight Special) runs the household for his single Mom Susan (Naomi Watts) – who insists on struggling on as an inept waitress though he’s amassed a stock portfolio that means she could stay home and write/draw her own children’s books about ‘punk rock awesome’ striped squirrels – and protects his less-gifted speccy brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay, of The Room) at school. Henry designs Heath Robinson/Rube Goldberg contraptions for fun, and approaches life the same way – though he’s also fiercely moral, and infuriated that he can’t get the principal (Tonya Pinkins) or child protective services involved when he sees all the signs that classmate Christina (Maddie Ziegler) is being abused by her stepfather Glenn Sickleman (Dean Norris – in another of his seething human fireplug roles), who is not only chief of police but has a brother in charge of the local social services.
When, in a sudden rush of plot, Henry is struck by a fatal brain tumour, he leaves behind a book of instructions for saving Christina – which would mean Susan murdering Glenn and becoming Christina’s guardian. Realising that Henry is right about Glenn – whose main concern as a next-door neighbour is raking leaves – she falls in with the posthumous plan, though there’s a late-in-the-day complication as she remembers he was only a kid after all. For a film that isn’t afraid to go to dark places – the abuse next door is deftly, unnervingly conveyed – this fudges quite a few issues: becoming the guardian of an abused girl is likely to be more challenging even than raising a kid genius, brain surgeons really aren’t supposed to come on to the bereaved mothers of patients they’ve lost, all that money sitting around is dreadfully plot convenient.
In the mix is Sarah Silverman – underused in the movies – as Susan’s tattooed drunk waitress pal, whose scrappy relationship with Henry goes to places that are exceptionally queasy, especially in a film about child abuse, but which have a weirdly honest ring about them. It’s more conventional that we have a kid who does accounts and scolds his Mom for swearing while the grown-up plays shoot ‘em up games on the big screen TV, but Watts carries off the irresponsible adult role well. It’s still more peculiar than successful, but it’s more likely to stick in the memory than Trevorrow’s hired gun gigs. With very little dialogue, Ziegler is most likely to get a career boost out of this – in one scene, she conveys her inner screaming agony through the medium of ballet at the school talent contest.