February 19, 2009

Henry Poole Is Here

Henry Poole revisits childhood haunts in 'Henry Poole is Here'What little critical attention was paid to Henry Poole is Here, one of 2008's overlooked gems, alternately embraced or dismissed the film as a celebration of religious faith. It is unquestionably a celebration of faith, but only in the broadest sense of the word. It's about finding yourself in a place where you can't see your way to tomorrow—and discovering that meaning is everywhere around you.

The film opens with Henry Poole's homecoming. When his perky and persistent realtor shows him a dump of a house in a dilapidated L.A. neighborhood, he decides to buy it on the spot. Yes, he wants to pay full asking price. No, he doesn't want any repairs made first. He's not going to be living in the house long anyway. The full significance of that assertion is unraveled slowly.

Henry's trips to the grocery store center around the acquisition of large quantities of alcohol. The cashier, peering at him through Coke-bottle glasses, and tells him he looks angry and sad. Her observation is spot on, and has everything (or maybe nothing) to do with the secret he's hiding.

And yet, despite his tightly coiled despair, Henry is reveal through a series of small and beautiful articulated moments to be a fundamentally decent person. He really listens to his overly intrusive and deeply passionate neighbor Esperanza, even as he attempts to drive her off his property. When he discovers Millie, the young daughter of his neighbor next door, taping his conversations through the fence, he approaches her with the deliberateness and gentleness one would afford to a cornered animal. Rather than confront the child, he affords her the space she needs to express her own turmoil.

His neighbors are all just as fundamentally decent. The neighborhood has visibly decayed in the years since Henry moved away, transformed from a symbol of the American Dream to a place where dreams go to die. Its current inhabitants form a community more social than is strictly desirable. Millie's mother Dawn went through a break-up so traumatic that the girl hasn't spoken since. Patience, the cashier, faces Henry and the world with an indomitable optimism. A water stain on the side of Henry's house provides Esperanza with an affirmation of the love she shared with the man who previously inhabited it. Father Salazar tries to stay on top of the fervently Catholic Hispanic congregation that surrounds them.

The neighborhood responds to the water stain, which may or may not be a divine image representation of the Savior, in ways that range from the profoundly symbolic to the regrettably unambiguous. Henry remains steadfastly unconvinced through it all, though his experiences with Dawn and Millie leave him with a desperate desire to persuaded.

The ending feels maddeningly artificial and contrived, but how could it end anyway else given everything that has come before? Either way, Luke Wilson sells it from the first frame to the last in a performance that captures all the humanity and complexity of his on-screen personality. Through his skeptical eyes, we are greeted with a vision of humanity that is honest and affirming. Adriana Barraza makes an irritating woman sympathetic and endearing. At seven years of age, Morgan Lily turns in a three-dimensional performance in a role with virtually no dialog. Radha Mitchell and George Lopez each do a great job with a thankless role. Rachel Seiferth's first scene convinces us that Patience is pathetic. It takes a remarkable performance over the rest of the time to prove otherwise. Don't let the films few irritating contrivances detract from an artistically sound and incredibly moving embrace of hope.(***½)

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