Title: Jesus Henry Christ
Director: Dennis Lee
Starring: Michael Sheen, Toni Collette, Jason Spevack, Samantha Weinstein, Frank Moore
A canted coming-of-age tale about a 10-year-old prodigy who sets out to find his biological father, writer-director Dennis Lee’s “Jesus Henry Christ,” executive-produced by Julia Roberts, uses the loose thematic conceit of burgeoning self-identity as a jumping off point for a colorful and at times funny but mostly emotionally hollow exploration of adolescent isolation and yearning for acceptance.
An adaptation of Lee’s Student Academy Award-winning short film of the same name, “Jesus Henry Christ” takes as its central figure Henry (Jason Spevack), a precocious boy genius who’s been speaking since he was but an infant, and is finally at an age where questions about his father spur some grander action. Tipped off by his grandfather Stanley (Frank Moore) as to the unique origins of his birth — he was conceived via a petri dish, from a heretofore unknown sperm donor — Henry leaves his doting single mother Patricia (Toni Collette) and sets off to find the man he believes to be his dad, tenured academic and novelist Dr. Slavkin O’Hara (Michael Sheen).
Slavkin takes Henry under his wing, amazed by his intellect. Less enamored with Henry’s sudden appearance, however, is his potential/possible older half-sister Audrey (Samantha Weinstein, channeling a pinch of Christina Ricci’s dour and standoffish turn as Wednesday from the “Addams Family” movies), herself the victim of a tortured middle school existence due largely to an unfortunate cover appearance on one of her father’s books. As Patricia, Slavkin, Audrey and Henry spend time together and await the results of a blood test that will definitively determine the latter’s biology, Patricia begins to wonder if Slavkin his ulterior motives, in the form of a manuscript detailing her unique son.
It’s not that “Jesus Henry Christ” is at all bad, per se. It’s just that its casually whimsical tone and esoteric asides (Slavkin relates an anecdote about a Post-It note staying stuck to a door during a hurricane) come across less as emblematic of a genuinely original voice and carefully constructed tone and more like an amalgamation of “Little Man Tate,” “Rocket Science,” “Running With Scissors” and, of course, “Rushmore,” which will certainly get name-checked in plenty of reviews.
Lee peppers his movie with punchy flashbacks, and opens with a seriocomic sequence which lays out Patricia’s traumatic upbringing, and the various deaths of many of her family members. Lee also discards the talking-baby novelty extremely quickly, and some of the questions that it raises — namely, that if Henry can supposedly remember everything in his life, like a non-stop video recording, why doesn’t he have total recall of his own speech development? Clearly, Lee is more interested in the choppy new intra-family dynamics, and that’s fine. But the movie’s gears grind in its attempts to pivot away from something heightened and slightly absurd and into something more grounded and emotional. That sales job doesn’t work, and that connection never manifests. A scene that’s supposed to be pregnant with metaphorical weight, of Slavkin screaming in a windstorm, comes across as silly.
What “Jesus Henry Christ” most has going for it is a game cast, and in particular two young actors, in Spevack and Weinstein, who have a native grasp of their sometimes unwieldy or at least pointed dialogue. Scene to scene, they keep things interesting and mostly delightful. If its mystery and pay-offs seem forced, “Jesus Henry Christ” is at least an engaging and lively trip.
Written by: Brent Simon