Jesus Christ does not actually appear in Jesus Henry Christ except as a frequent expletive, suggesting that the New Testament star's titular shout-out is meant as a provocation.
"Are you shocked yet?" the movie seems to be asking, over and over again. "What if we throw in a carnival of gruesome family deaths, a foreign doctor who mispronounces 'semen' and a jive-talking white man in African garb?" To sell the story of a mature and soft-spoken child prodigy, the filmmakers employ bad taste in a bid for attention. They act out.
They didn't have to. Henry, the brilliant kid at the movie's center, is an engaging character, more fun to be around than most cinematic 10-year-olds. Child actor Jason Spevack, with his mild voice and disarmingly direct mannerisms, plays Henry like a lost Glass family member, and the story of his quest to find his biological father — he was a "test-tube baby" — didn't need all this surrounding nonsense. Henry can finish a college application test in two minutes, yet Jesus Henry Christ doesn't know what to do with 90.
The four anchors of the story form a kind of Frankenfamily, patched together by modern science and sociological theory rather than love. Henry's feminist mother, Patricia (Toni Collette), wanted a child but not a husband; nebbish professor Dr. Slavkin O'Hara (Michael Sheen, honing his flustered-American accent) may have unknowingly provided the sperm that resulted in a genius offspring. Henry tracks down Slavkin as a potential donor through the academic's bitter preteen daughter, Audrey (Samantha Weinstein), who's been raised as a test subject for a tenure-track theory about sexual identity.
The script probes the ways in which adults label and use children — Patricia exploits Henry's intellect as a bargaining chip for a large college scholarship, while Slavkin's experiments on his daughter spur her peers to target her as a lesbian. But the dialogue is often broad and silly, and there's a frustrating incoherence to the whole thing. Why, for example, would Patricia enroll her son in Catholic school prior to college when we know she has a history of protesting the church? Solely to provide her 10-year-old aspiring heretic a door upon which to tape My First Manifesto?
Writer-director Dennis Lee, who based the film on his 2003 short of the same name, would seem to have a thing for fractured families, having previously helmed the multigenerational melodrama Fireflies in the Garden. (Julia Roberts, who headlined Fireflies, is an executive producer on this one.) Lee's tone here is flamboyant and shrill, his palette candy-colored, and he stages his action in broad, blundering strokes. The camera spazzes about, spinning and dolly-zooming with reckless abandon. Many attempted comic bursts, such as Slavkin burning unsold piles of his book or a mistakenly incestuous kiss, strike the wrong tone.
It's hard to figure out what sort of movie Lee was trying to make. The first act is less concerned with introducing compelling characters than it is with cracking tasteless jokes. Later developments, such as Slavkin's obsession with Post-it notes or an excursion to an amusement park, have all the tweeness of a dozen Wes Anderson rip-offs.
Once he settles down, Lee does give his gifted actors time to shine — Weinstein, in particular, creates a prickly, acerbic portrayal of daughter-as-social-experiment. Frank Moore, in a supporting role as Henry's old-school grandfather, gives pathos to a character who could have been grating.
Henry is no Christlike figure (he doesn't ever have to sacrifice anything), though the people who populate Jesus Henry Christ do ultimately aspire to change the world. But it's hard to do that when you stray off-message as much as this film, where the disparate elements feel so out of place they seem to have been artificially conceived. We're dealing with a test-tube movie.