Henry Poole is Here

Henry Poole Is Here

Deck: Diagnosis of a serious medical condition prompts a man to become a recluse, but his neighbors keep bringing hope and faith into his life.

Stars: 3

Rated: PG

Genre: Drama

Theater Release: August 15, 2008, Overture Films

Directed by: Mark Pellington

Runtime: 1 hour 40 min

Cast: Luke Wilson (Henry Poole), Adriana Barraza (Esperanza), Radha Mitchell (Dawn), Millie (Morgan Lily), George Lopez (Fr. Salazar)


“Henry Poole is Here” is a film that Christian moviegoers will yearn to embrace, if only from sheer gratitude; here, at last, is a depiction of Christian faith that portrays it as something other than the domain of cranks and loonies. And it’s not just theological theory that wins the film’s blessing, but something more substantive, verging on shocking: it proposes that miracles can happen—and supplies an audacious one for our consideration.

That daring premise is set in a simple story. Henry Poole, a thoroughly dejected young man, has bought an empty house in a California suburb, and it’s still mostly empty after he moves in, apart from the accumulating vodka bottles. On one side, he has a cheery neighbor, Esperanza, who keeps interfering with his goal of continual glumness. On the other, there’s a mysterious, elfin 6-year-old girl, Millie, who doesn’t speak but does tote a tape recorder, and her mom, Dawn, who bakes cookies and owns a variety of V-necked outfits.

So there are a number of neighborly distractions for Henry, some more appealing than others, but the most disruptive thing is happening in his own back yard. The slapdash stucco job done before Henry moved in has a discolored patch that shows through the paint. But maybe it’s not just a random stain, maybe it’s a face-the face of Christ.

Esperanza certainly thinks so, and brings in her priest to look it over, who gives it cautious approval. If you’ve only seen George Lopez in comic roles, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at his portrayal of Fr. Salazar; the pastor is intelligent, sincere, and hasn’t a shred of burlesque (we should thank the writers for that, too). Esperanza then begins encouraging her friends to come and pray in front of the stain (or image, as it may be). As apparent miracles begin to occur, Henry Poole faces an increasingly pointed challenge: he must either surrender and believe, or allow his pent-up rage to put an end to the “miracles” once and for all.

Christians are so used to being portrayed as creeps and buffoons in entertainment that they may spend much of the movie braced for the slapdown. But there isn’t one; the miracle, and the faith that wells up surrounding it, are treated with respect. It is the gloomy atheist at the center of the story who will have to learn a lesson. Henry can insist, “There are no miracles!,” but it turns out that he’s wrong, and there will come a time for him to express repentance.

I expect that for many Christian moviegoers, this is more than enough to sell them on the film. It’s for your sake that I gave it three stars. But put me in the minority. I think the movie just isn’t as good as it could have been. As I watched these characters go through their predictable motions, I kept thinking that this must be the out-takes, and somewhere there was an alternative movie where they were doing and saying things that are *interesting*. Surely they don’t spend all their time trading wistful comments (“Things happen for a reason,” “I got a pretty long journey ahead,” “It’s the last time I remember being happy”), walking at sunset, brooding in darkness, jolting through too many montages, doing all manner of things in slow-motion, and all of it set to a mix-tape of emo favorites.

I wonder if this is one of those cases where the biggest truths are simple truths, and they impact most those who are ready to receive them. Director Mark Pellington has endured a blinding tragedy: the sudden loss of his wife, leaving him to care for their toddler daughter. When you’ve been in a “black hole” (as he terms that period of his life), things get whittled down to the essentials. Clarity becomes an urgent need. A simple saying, like “Things happen for a reason,” is packed with repercussions. A movie that seems a bit vacant or hypothetical to a reviewer may express the director’s most profound beliefs, and express them most accurately precisely because they are simply put.

As Pellington writes in the film’s production notes, “I believe in these characters and this story and its themes. The things I want to say to the world are in this film.” I feel bad that I was not able to take from the film everything he meant it to convey. For every resistor like me, though, there will be dozens of movie-goers who embrace it with gratitude, and who look with increasing hope for future movies on related themes. Those are plenty of good reasons to wish “Henry Poole” all the success it can gain.

Talk About It

1. The film in shot in such a way that the audience can’t get a clear view of the supposed image, and can’t decide for themselves whether or not it’s real. Do you think this was a wise choice on the part of the director? How might the film have felt different, if we were shown an undeniable face of Christ on the wall?

2. What about the element of blood appearing to come through the wall? Was this distracting or disturbing to you, or did it enhance your appreciation of the film’s daring approach to miracles?

3. Is there an Esperanza at your church, or in your neighborhood? Is she (or he) sometimes difficult to deal with? What would you tell her in a situation such as in the film, when she has broken a promise not to bring people into Henry’s yard, but defends her action by saying, “God is bigger than a promise”?

The Family Corner

There is some use of mild obscenities, and Henry Poole drinks a great deal. Apart from that the film contains little that would be inappropriate for children, though they might well find it uninteresting or hard to follow.

About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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