Henry Poole is Here is one of those rare movies that seems so indifferent to appealing to any target demographic, one wonders how it managed to get made at all.
It isn't a mere inoffensive "family film." It wasn't made by anyone associated with Phil Anschutz or any Christian or Christian-friendly studios, and it doesn't carry a specific salvation message. Instead it is a quiet, introspective story that, clumsily at some times and heartbreakingly at others, explores a broken man's search for meaning and the gift of faith.
When Henry (Luke Wilson) buys a house in lower-middle-class California, his only intention is to find a private place to drink and despair. But almost moments after he moves in, a "miracle" in his backyard prevents him from following his plan. While delivering a plate of welcome-to-the-neighborhood tamales, his neighbor Esperanza (Adriana Barraza) sees what she believes is the face of Christ in a stain on the stucco of Henry's house. Soon, Henry has not only Esperanza's interfering to deal with, but that of "believers" who trek to his backyard to worship and find healing at the foot of the stain.
Based on the above description, you could be forgiven for assuming that Henry Poole Is Here goes on to make fun of the idolatrous old ladies and desperate teenage girls leaving flowers in front of the stucco stain. But while the situation is played for some good-natured laughs, director Mark Pellington doesn't stoop to anything so cheap or easy.
Obviously the script's choice of miracle is meant to bring to mind reports of people seeing images of Christ's face in a tortilla or the Virgin Mary in a potato chip, but the desire of Esperanza and her friends to see evidence of God working is never portrayed as ridiculous. Instead it is Henry, in his steadfast refusal to recognize supernatural events happening right in front of his eyes, who looks foolish. (In fact it's interesting that the only material that seems to warrant a PG rating is several instances of Henry taking the Lord's name in vain.) And happily, by the end it becomes clear that touching the face in the stucco isn't the point for Henry any more than washing in the muddy Jordan was the point for the leper Naaman. The point is that acting on faith is the conduit for Christ's healing.
As various characters begin to experience different levels of restoration by placing their hands on Henry's backyard wall, the polite distance between them begins to evaporate. Henry's other neighbor Dawn (Radha Mitchell) and her psychologically traumatized 4-year-old Millie share their pain with him and help him begin to release his grip on his own. The unfortunate thing is that we aren't privy to many of these conversations. Instead of real dialogue to show his characters connecting, Pellington cheats with musical montages that seem to carry unspoken titles like "Henry experiences grief" or "Henry starts falling in love" that would look more appropriate in a CSI episode.
But other scenes are startling in their ability to reflect the New Testament's message. One in particular is in its humble, metaphorical way nearly as effective as Mel Gibson's The Passion in portraying how each of us bears the guilt of Christ's destruction yet can also share in the miraculous gift of His resurrection. Considering that Pellington professes no particular faith himself, that he was able to capture such a moment so beautifully is a small miracle in itself.