HenryPooleI'm not sure who, exactly, is the intended audience for the new film Henry Poole Is Here, whichopens (on a limited basis) this weekend. Its an independent movie with an aggressively trendy soundtrack; it stars Luke Wilson; it premiered at Sundance. But its far too mild for the quirky indie crowd. In fact, the marketers have been reaching out to faith-friendly audiencesthats how I found out about the screening I saw a few weeks ago. Henry Poole is a lightweight fable about a seriously depressed manthe title character, played by Wilsonwho moves into a new house hoping to be left alone, and finds himself at the center of a small religious revival thanks to a mark on the side of his home that resembles the face of Jesus. (By which I mean, of course, that it resembles popular artistic representations of Jesus. It's a guy with long hair and a beard.) Lives are changed, miracles happen, faith is endorsed. But faith in what, exactly? Where do the miracles come from? Henry Poole Is Here doesnt pursue those questions, so Im not sure what it has to offer people who ask questions about their faith on a regular basis. It is the film equivalent of this inspirational jewelry from the Signals catalog: Believe, it says. The customer canfill in the details.The movie never gives us a head-on view of the apparently miraculous image, which shows up on Henrys house following a hasty stucco job. We see it mostly in the eyes of its beholders, and otherwise only as a faint impression in the background of the shot. Thats an intriguing choice, because it suggests that the apparition itself is not the pointthe film wants us to be more interested in what goes on around it. Unfortunately, everything else leaves an equally faint impression. The story seems almost afraid to develop beyond the basic outline stage (unbelievably, the version I saw had even less meat on its bones than the one screened at Sundance, judging from the plot summaries I found on IMDb and Wikipedia). To call this movie quirky would be overstating its liveliness; it would imply a faster pace, more interesting characters and a much more vigorous sense of humor. And no truly quirky movie would be caught dead dealing in the timeworn clichs that make up the plot of this one. You can get a sense of the films split personality by watching its trailer: just when the story starts looking like it might be something you havent seen before, along comes the adorable, traumatized child who does not speak. There's nothing new to see here.If Henry Poole can attract church groups and youth groups and families, its appeal will derive less from the movies content than from what it does not contain. Religion is not mocked; faith and hope are wanly endorsed. There is no objectionable content: no harsh language, no violence, nothing crude or suggestive, just a few tough thematic elements to earn that PG rating. There is a priest, called on to vet the supposed miracle, and Catholics might appreciate the fact that he comes off as a decent guy, even if he doesnt do or say a heck of a lot. Hispanic Catholics might be tickled to see George Lopez in the role of Father Salazar, and theyll probably get a few laughs out of Adriana Barraza as Esperanza, the not-very-subtly-named neighbor who discovers the miraculous rostro de Dios and spends the rest of the film reflexively crossing herself. But the absence of anything insulting doesnt indicate the presence of anything worthwhile. Very earnest viewers might wring some discussion out of the meaning of the bloody tears that fall from the image, or find some depth in the claim, made by Henrys neighbor and love interest, Dawn, that the face on the wall resembles Henrys own. But its hard to shake the feeling that the movies creatorsscreenwriter Albert Torres and director Mark Pellingtondidnt give much thought to what all that might mean. After all, theyve hardly bothered to prop up their flimsy plot with even the most distantly plausible details. Viewers are likely to feel cheated by the many basic questions that go unanswered: What, exactly, is Henry's problem? Why does he spend the first half of the movie looking hangdog and unshaven? The film builds up the suspense, then tosses off an answer that is primarily a dodge. There may be more plot holes than plot in the landscape of Henry Poole.Of the various miracles the apparition provokes, only one has no real-world explanation. Its recipient, a supermarket check-out girl namedwait for itPatience, tells Henry she doesnt want to consult science regarding her cure. Sometimes things happen because we choose for them to, she says simply. I chose to believe. (Somebody put that on a T-shirt!) But what, exactly, does Patience believe in, besides the healing power of the stain on Henrys wall? She doesnt elaborate on why or how the face of Jesus changed her life; the only guru she cites is Noam Chomsky. So what sort of belief is Henry learning to embrace, and what is the cost of believing, for him or anyone else? What will hope ask of them once the miracles are over? The movie courts faith-friendly audiences by suggesting that a person would need a good reason not to have faith, not to hopethat atheism (or apathy, or grumpiness, or whatever Henry stands for) can only be a sign of emotional damage. But you can't get much drama out of the act of believing if you don't have any interest in specific beliefs.Henry Poole isn't bad, exactly, it's just exceptionally slight. It might make a good companion on an airplane--especially since the dialogue is largely incidental to the story, such as it is. But if you're looking for a secular, family-friendly film that preaches the power of hope and believing in yourself, there are already scores that deliver that message with more heart and more fun. (One that came to my mind as I watched this was Disneys The Boy Who Could Fly, from 1986: it too has a moving-to-a-new-home frame, a plot that hinges on unexplained phenomena, a speechless trauma victim, a perfunctory romance and a vague "keep hoping"moral, but with a busier plot, better character development, far more likable heroes and a satisfying dose of sentimentality.) And if you're hoping for an independent movie with style and brains, something made for adults that takes religion seriously and challenges its audience? Then it might be time to start praying for a miracle.

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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