“Henry Poole is Here” comes out of nowhere in a disappointing summer movie season overdosed with superhero blockbusters, and might just be the film you have been waiting for. Surprisingly refreshing and often funny, the movie tells of terminally ill patient Poole (Luke Wilson) who moves to the suburbs of Los Angeles with hopes of spending his remaining days alone with vodka and sunshine. Life, no pun on words, has other plans for him, and the whole neighborhood soon invades his backyard after Esperanza (Oscar-nominated Mexican-American actress Adriana Barraza), the Spanish widow next door, claims she has witnessed a “miracle” happening there.
Said miracle happens to be a strange-looking stain which Esperanza maintains is in the likeness of Jesus Christ; in fact, she believes it is the Christ himself. While the cynical and disillusioned Poole continually rails against the discovery throughout the film, masses of the sick and handicapped soon convene at his house to be healed by the stain. A cashier (Rachel Seiferth) regains her sight and an eight-year old child (Millie Stupek) begins to talk after she has been silent for a year, but the movie never makes it clear that the stain is actually responsible for their healing and leaves it to the viewer to decide.
Though “Henry Poole” gets off to a slow start, and the soundtrack contains more misses than hits, the film is aptly if routinely directed and succeeds especially because it offers a simple, unpretentious story — and side romance — infused with a few inspired quips and quotations. Despite its spiritual focus and Christian imagery, it does not seek to convert or teach.
Wilson successfully capture’s Poole’s depressing self-absorption, and he is supported by a particularly strong cast composed of Barraza, whose portrayal of the devout Esperanza is a delight, and Radha Mitchell cast as Dawn, a single mother who serves both as a foil to Poole and and a love interest. Newcomer Rachel Seiferth offers a very credible and touching rendering of Patience, the near-blind cashier who “sees” farther and clearer than others.
With its clearly delineated and linear narrative, emphasis on dialogue, heavy use of close-ups and crisp cinematography, the movie focuses the viewer’s attention on the characters and the fears, doubts, and dilemmas they face. The universality of the themes employed – the relationship between Dawn and her silent daughter, the inability of Poole to connect with others, the urge to find meaning in life’s simple events – speaks to the basic goodness and humanity present in each one of us. It reminds us that in traumatic situations and through intense hardship, faith and hope might just be what we need. Above all, the movie reminds us that we are alive, and asks us to remember to live.
At one point, the protagonist angrily exclaims, in response to Esperanza’s tireless attempts at getting him to enjoy life again and believe in the miracle, “People don’t go running around helping each other for no reason.” Poole’s faithlessness indirectly puts a question in our heads: “And what if they did?” The movie reminds us that next door or in the dorm room upstairs, there might just be someone who needs a hand or a listening ear.