Michael Sheen’s portrayal of a flustered but well-meaning college professor is the best thing about this oddball low-budget dramedy. His Dr Slavkin O’Hara may be the unknowing father of 10-year-old genius Henry James Herman (the refreshingly unobnoxious Jason Spevack). But Toni Collette plays Henry’s loud and antagonistic mother Patricia Herman with the same unmodulated overacting that made her TV series United States of Tara so hard to watch.
Directed and written by Dennis Lee (Fireflies in the Garden), the movie tries getting by on the kind of plot absurdities and ironic tone that work best when the underlying humor is actually amusing. There are moments of real cleverness, such as a group portrait come to life in which we see the strange fates of various family members, or a later incident that reveals how a basketball championship resulted in an unlikely death. But a scene in which an obviously white man insists he is as black as his adopted son falls very flat.
Also, too much of the film tries so hard to be coolly quirky that it misses some worthy opportunities to be warmly emotional. Henry’s relationship with his grandfather Stan Herman (Frank Moore) has what’s supposed to be a powerful payoff, but we have so little invested in Stan’s one-dimensionally silly character that it’s hard to care about the old troublemaker. Dr O’Hara’s bullied and resentful daughter Audrey (Samantha Weinstein) likewise remains so standoffish, blank-faced and detached she could be a CGI construct. A family reunion of sorts that takes place near the end of the movie is too little too late, melodrama wise.
Sheen, however, manages to make his American-accented character genuinely interesting. Dr O’Hara feels so guilty about using 12-year-old Audrey as the subject of his non-fiction book “Born Gay or Made That Way” that he buys up copies to burn them and considers committing suicide. Flashbacks to his wife shamelessly flirting with her gynecologist show why Dr O’Hara is unsure about even being Audrey’s father. And his sperm-donor past comes back to haunt him when Henry — thanks to a tip-off from grandfather Stan — pops up and wants to get to know his previously unaware dad.
It’s Stan who first points out that his grandson is a “freak genius,” after hearing Henry talk in complete sentences at the age of nine months. “A freak is someone who’s very special,” Patricia helpfully explains to Henry, a speed-reader who has a perfect memory and enrolls in college before reaching puberty. That’s after he’s expelled from Catholic school for the heresy of distributing his “Manifest on the Nature of Truth,” which puts God and the devil in the same category as the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus.
The movie’s misleading moniker is a play on the expression “Jesus H Christ” that is uttered on more than one occasion throughout the film. Although the title implies there could be something divine about Henry, the screenplay includes no suggestion of any such thing. That’s a shame, because the film could have benefitted from a jolt of fantasy that would have set it apart from the typical indie-film wacky-family pack.