Henry Poole is Here: Mark Pellington’s Spiritual Fable, Starring Luke Wilson

Sundance Film Fest 2008 (Premieres)–You have to believe in miracles to enjoy, let alone accept, the premise of Mark Pellington’s spiritual fable “Henry Poole Is Here.”

The story centers on the miraculous transformation of a man (played by Luke Wilson), who withdraws from the real world into a California suburb after a bleak medical prognosis.

It’s been a while since we saw a religious-themed redemption story, so “Henry Poole” might have a small audience when it’s released theatrically by Overture Films. The premiere at Sundance Film Fest, back in January, generated mixed notrices, and the studio will have to overcome that response in order to market the film effectively.

Overall, “Henry Poole” is a semi-effective but not-too-deep soul-searching yarn that represents a change of pace for both director Pellington and star Wilson (brother of star Owen Wilson). Pellington began the indie route with “Going All the Way” (which played at Sundance in dramatic competition in 1997), starring Ben Affleck the same year that he made his breakthrough film, “Good Will Hunting.” Perhaps discouraged by the failure of that indie, Pellington then went mainstream with two genre works, the thriller “Arlington Road,” which had good acting from Jeff Bridges and Tim Robbins, and the horror yarn “Mothman Prophecies,” his biggest commercial success to date.

Is the helmer going back to his roots “Henry Poole” is not only an indie about loss and second chances at salvation, but also a feature that bears strong autobiographical notesPellington’s wife died several years ago and he has a young child. But as other cases have shown, a personal or fact-based feature doesn’t necessarily translate into a good or poignant one; this one is just mediocre. Based on Albert Torres’s script, “Henry Poole” is a film that strains credibility and needs to be taken at face value-on its own terms.

At first, Wilson’s Poole seems to be a man living a perfect life-comfortable, engaged, full of opportunity. However, the negaive results of a routine checkup prompt Henry to flee. Most of the tale is set in a bland lower middle-class suburb where Poole, depressed from discouraging news from his doctor, buys a house near La Mirada, California, where he grew up. Though he would like to be left alone, he soon becomes a target for a number of his female neighbors, all wishing help.

Problem is, the women represent broad types. First there is real estate agent Meg (Cheryl Hines), then there’s the gossipy Latina Esperanza (Adriana Barraza, who was so good in “Babel”). And for romantic interest, the scripter has constructed the gentle and attractive Dawn (Radha Mitchell), a single mother caring for her own troubled 8-year-old daughter Millie (Morgan Lily). The names of the female protags are symbolic: Dawn represents new beginning, Esperanza literally means hope in Spanish, and so on.

One day, the religious Esperanza claims to have seen the outline of a face on a newly painted wall of Poole’s house, which she believes is a sign from God. To that extent, she summons the local priest Father Salazar (George Lopez) and a large devout crowd to keep a vigil. Poole’s gut reaction is to wash the wall with bleach–only to realize that the mysterious face gets even more visible.

In due course, Poole goes through the gamut of emotions, from detached indifference to anger and fury to retreat and resignation, while recalling memories of his life–and waiting for his impending death.

Quite expectedly, the only rapport Henry is capable of establishing is with the young mute Millie, who hasn’t spoken a single word since her father had abandoned the family.

Miracles continue to abound, when a near-blind supermarket saleswoman (Rachel Seiferth) touches the bizarre wall and regains her sight. The initially tentative romance with Dawn can also be considered a miracle, given Poole’s state of mind, not to mention a new, more positive report from his doctor (Richard Benjamin).

Despite the potentially severe subject, the film is far from being grim or downbeat due to the occasional dosage of humor that the writer and director inject into the proceedings–and the ending.

Ultimately, “Henry Poole” concerns the vagaries of life and death, the need to believe in something bigger than themselves, the urge to connect with other human beings, particularly in times of crisis, and perhaps most important of all, the healing, redemptive powers of love.

Stretching with a new kind of role, Wilson is expected to carry the whole film, a goal that he only partially accomplishes. Though he has appeared in both mainstream Hollywood and edgy indies (such as Wes Anderson films), Wilson is not entirely convincing. Some of the performance’s faults are attributable to the writing and direction: In the first reel, the isolated Poole is required to sit steel at his dreary apartment, stare at the skies and drinks; perhaps a more expressive and charismatic actor could have pulled those tricks off.

In contrast, the women fare better, particularly Barraza, who gives a heartfelt, sympathetic performance despite the burden of clichs; she brings Poole her delicious tamales. The always-reliable Radha Mitchell also renders a gentle, likable performance as the single mom still young enough to have a meaningful affair.


Dawn Stupek: Radha Mitchell
Esperanza: Adriana Barraza
Father Salazar: George Lopez
Millie: Morgan Lily
Realtor: Cheryl Hines
Patience: Rachel Seiferth
Doctor: Richard Benjamin


Director: Mark Pellington
Screenwriter: Albert Torres
Producers: Tom Rosenberg, Gary Lucchesi, Richard Wright, Gary Gilbert, Tom Lassally
Camera: Eric Schmidt
Editor: Lisa Churgin
Production Design: Richard Hoover

Running Time: 100 Minutes