Ordinarily Unique, by David Bax
Director Dennis Lee’s new film, Jesus Henry Christ, is a riff on the theme of identity. It presents numerous possible answers to the question of what defines a person; parentage, sexuality, politics, experience, etc. It plays two paths against each other. In one, you are what your life and its particulars have made you. In the other, you possess the free will to forge your own self. For a work so fixated on the dissection of uniqueness, it’s disheartening that Lee has made a film exceedingly similar to so many other deadpan “smart” comedies.
The lead character, Henry (Jason Spevack), is a ten-year-old prodigy. His IQ is above 300. As you’d expect, he doesn’t quite fit in but he does have a rewardingly close relationship with his single mother, Patricia (Toni Collette). He decides to find his biological father and his search brings him to the nearby university and into contact with a professor named Dr. Slavkin O’Hara (Michael Sheen), who raised his daughter, Audrey (Samantha Weinstein), with no gender preconceptions. She now resents him for the outcast her upbringing has made her. Henry, Patricia, Slavkin and Audrey become a quirky foursome, resembling a family but often too prickly and idiosyncratic to accept themselves as one.
Lee layers the variations on his theme. Some of them are thick and conspicuous, with characters saying things like “I don’t want to be like everyone else” or, conversely, “I just want to be normal.” Others remain mostly subtle but spring to attention when called on. One running gag has a black classmate of Henry’s refusing to believe he’s adopted despite his parents being white. This isn’t particularly funny but it fills its role when, late in the game, the young man’s father makes a brief but surprisingly tender speech on the topic.
Despite Lee displaying some skill at remaining on topic, his movie fails to first and foremost be a good movie. Jesus Henry Christ wears the clothes of a comedy but to assay its screenplay would turn up little to no evidence of actual jokes. Instead, the film is full of self-consciously peculiar tricks – like a whole scene spoken in Spanish – or affectedly stone-faced reaction shots. That sort of thing felt unnatural in Napoleon Dynamite, eight years ago. Here, it’s just embarrassing.
Furthering his debt to Jared Hess’ 2004 sleeper hit, Lee’s direction is derivatively mannered. Or perhaps he thinks he’s the first person to discover symmetry. The effect of his approach, as in the similarly eye-torturing Garden State, is to rob his characters of their humanity and his setting of its believability. We may as well be watching the first table read of the script, though that might actually be more fun.
Jesus Henry Christ contains a number of knowingly “shocking” moments of dark humor. Subjects like abortion and alcoholism are presented for superficial chuckles and, for an ostensibly intimate tale of self-discovery, we see a jaw-dropping number of gruesome deaths. Filmmakers like Dennis Lee are unlikely to make anything that lasts because they spend too much energy decorating their work with touches like these and ignoring the meat that makes a film worthwhile. They’ll ensure that they’re forgotten by trying too hard to be noticed.