by HELEN GEIB
Earlier this year, I read a newspaper feature about the bleak outlook for arthouse film exhibition. The feature cited sobering statistics about the falling number of screens devoted to non-Hollywood films and declining investment by distributors, and identified Henry Poole Is Here as an example of a notable independent film that had struggled to find a distributor. It was a poor choice to illustrate the problem. Henry Poole is a film of no artistic merit, with nothing to recommend it to its audience but good intentions.
The script, direction, cinematography, art direction, editing, etc. suggest filmmakers with little money, skill, or experience. The Internet Movie Database informs me this is screenwriter Albert Torres’ first film and director Mark Pellington’s prior credits are in television and music videos. It shows.
The film stars three experienced professional actors. However, whatever the merits of their other work, their performances here are on par with the quality of the rest of the film. The adage a craftsman is only as good as his tools seems appropriate in this case.
The story is a treacly melodrama. Henry (Luke Wilson) moves into a house on the street where he grew up. He carries unhealed psychological wounds inflicted in childhood by the ugly breakup of his parents’ marriage. His life is empty and he has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. His neighbor to one side is a beautiful single mother named Dawn (Radha Mitchell) with an adorable little girl; the little girl has been made dumb by psychological trauma related to her absent father. Henry’s neighbor to the other side is a middle-aged woman, Esperanza (Adriana Barraza), grieving over the death of her boyfriend, the former occupant of Henry’s house.
The neighbors are brought together through the overlay of a sappy story about belief in some amorphous higher power and the power of faith to work miracles. Esperanza sees the face of Jesus in a stain on the side wall of Henry’s house, the story spreads, the Church is called in to investigate, and pilgrims flock to the site to light candles and pray for miracles. Notwithstanding the details of the “miracle,” the film is not a defense of Catholicism, Christianity, or any other organized religion. My choice of the phrase “belief in some amorphous higher power” was deliberate. Those seeking any intellectual content in this film will find it maddeningly elusive.
Nor do the filmmakers commit to taking a position on whether divine agency was truly at work in improving the neighbors’ lives. Esperanza was grieving, not ill, and the little girl’s illness is mental, not physical; they may well be feeling better simply because Henry fills an emotional need in the role of, respectively, surrogate son and surrogate father. As to Henry’s condition, the filmmakers leave themselves a loophole that calls to mind the sublime moment at the end of Joe Versus the Volcano when Meg Ryan’s tough cookie heroine turns to Tom Hanks’ everyman Joe and says, incredulously: you got a diagnosis of something called a brain cloud and you didn’t get a second opinion?
The filmmakers may have intended their reticence to be read as commendable restraint; inviting the audience to draw the final conclusion as a mark of sophistication in treating matters of personal religious belief. However, in the context of a film that underscores every emotional scene with jerky handheld camerawork, aggressive use of close-ups, and a feel-good pop song blaring from the soundtrack, the filmmakers’ coy refusal to take a stand is merely the irritating capstone to a very poor film.