Jesus Henry Christ: Tribeca Review
A child prodigy goes looking for his sperm-donor dad in a comedy that seems to be reaching for a "Little Miss Sunshine" vibe.
NEW YORK — Prodigious mental gifts prove no substitute for an intact family in Jesus Henry Christ, writer/director Dennis Lee's amusing but scattered and unconvincing comedy about a kid genius in search of the father he never knew. A generally strong (if poorly used) cast and cartoonish vibe may connect with some moviegoers, but theatrical prospects are limited even without taking the film's unnecessarily provocative title into account.
Teen actor Jason Spevack gives an intelligent, uncutesy performance as Henry, the prodigy in question — who remembers everything he sees and started using complete sentences when he was nine months old. (CGI-enhanced scenes of his baby talk are no more believable than E*Trade's baby brokers and significantly less funny.)
In an opening sequence relying too heavily on ‘70s signifiers, we see how Henry's mother Patricia (Toni Collette) lost nearly her family entire — one brother suffered a shock-comic death lifted shamelessly from Pulp Fiction— growing up to become a single mom whose principled overprotectiveness isn't as endearing as Frances McDormand's was in Almost Famous.
Patricia loves her kid, but refuses to acknowledge his sperm-bank roots until Grandpa spills the beans in a scene that for unknown reasons mimics a Mexican telenovela. An investigation leads to professor Slavkin O'Hara (Michael Sheen), who may have donated the sperm but has clearly failed at raising the daughter he already knows about: JHC never bothers with details, but O'Hara somehow used daughter Audrey (Samantha Weinstein) as the unwilling subject of a lifelong experiment studying gender roles.
These stray parents and offspring make a singularly uncomfortable nuclear quartet, and in his shambling attempt to spell out just who's related to whom and what they're going to do about it, Lee seems to reaching for a Little Miss Sunshine vibe that completely eludes him. He has nothing resembling that film's fine-tuned ensemble, for one thing: Collette is wasted here, Sheen utterly misplaced, and Weinstein a one-note chorus of teen misanthropy. And between his underwritten plot points and overstylized gags Lee fails to convince us that any of these characters actually exist, much less to explain why it matters if they're blood relatives or not.
Spevack is likeable and unassuming enough that, for a while, Henry's own interest in the mystery is sufficient. But when Lee weaves other characters' cathartic needs in with Henry's, the movie's shaky makeup gets hard to ignore — and is more likely to provoke shrugs of mild disappointment than any levels of passion to match JHC's profane title.
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival, World Narrative Competition
Production Company: Red Om Films
Cast: Toni Collette, Michael Sheen, Jason Spevack, Samantha Weinstein, Frank Moore
Director-screenwriter: Dennis Lee
Producers: Philip Rose, Lisa Gillan, Sukee Chew
Executive producers: Julia Roberts, Deepak Nayar
Director of photography: Danny Moder
Production designer: Rob Pearson
Music: Simon Taufique, David Torn
Costume designer: Debra Hanson
Editor: Joan Sobel
Sales: Stuart Ford, International Sales Company
Rated PG-13, 93 minutes