Saturday, January 30, 2021

Sundance with Abe: John and the Hole

I’m thrilled to be covering the Sundance Film Festival for the eighth time. This year, I’m not in Park City, Utah, but watching films virtually and reviewing them as soon as I can.

John and the Hole
Directed by Pascual Sisto
U.S. Dramatic Competition

Kids sometimes don’t understand the weight of their actions. Doing homework and chores can be annoying, and some may rebel against their parents for perceived injustices that are hardly significant in the grand scheme of things. But to a young person without much life experience, something can mean a whole lot more, and the reaction may not be justified or proportionate. Typically, such antics are harmless, but in some cases, seeing an opportunity to take charge or get back at parents can be much more dangerous and problematic than anyone realizes.

John (Charlie Shotwell) is thirteen years old, and splits his time between playing video games and practicing his tennis skills. When he finds a bunker in the nearby woods, he is intrigued. Soon after, he brings his father (Michael C. Hall), mother (Jennifer Ehle), and sister (Taissa Farmiga) into the bunker and leaves them there. He shows up with food and a few other supplies but refuses to say anything to his concerned family members, who gradually begin to realize the seriousness of their situation. Left to his own devices, John begins to play house, pretending his family has just gone away and doing what he wants while there’s no one there to bother him.

This film is an undeniably peculiar specimen, mainly because there’s not much to indicate why John would want to imprison his parents and sister in a hole, and nothing too surprising that he fills his alone time with once they’re not around. His ability to mimic his mother’s voice on the phone is unsettling, but aside from driving the car and lying to his mother’s friend, there are no other red flags in his behavior either before the hole or once he’s trapped them in it. The whole thing sort of feels like a thought experiment, probing what a normal bored teenage boy would do if he could live in a large, empty home with no rules.

This is a well-assembled cast, utilizing mainstays Hall, Ehle, and Farmiga to good effect. Shotwell, best known for roles in “All the Money in the World” and “Captain Fantastic,” had another recent opportunity to play the younger child in a dysfunctional family dynamic in “The Nest.” He’s a clearly talented actor, portraying John as someone who’s still figuring out what he wants while taking disturbing steps to get there. This film features pensive cinematography and a strong musical score, technical elements that highlight an intriguing premise that ultimately doesn’t seem, like its protagonist, to know exactly what it wants to deliver.


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