Cinema has a long history with bad seeds or sociopathic children with a vicious streak. The archetype boasts no shortage of iconic children with corrupted innocence, and coming-of-angst only further compounds the potential for evil in youth. John and the Hole’s eponymous character seeks to join the ranks, but a relatively toothless fable undoes an unnerving lead performance without much substance.
Thirteen-year-old John (Charlie Shotwell) never smiles and doesn’t interact with others like most his age. He keeps mostly to himself, except to ask bizarre questions in an attempt to understand how normal humans are to behave. He bears all the signs of a sociopath, though his upper-class family doesn’t seem to notice. Chatty dad Brad (Michael C. Hall) and pill-popping mom Anna (Jennifer Ehle) pay more attention to his teen sister Laurie (Taissa Farmiga) or themselves. They don’t know what’s all too obvious as John steals mom’s prescription drugs and slips them into lemonade. Then, one morning, they find themselves at the bottom of a deep, unfinished bunker with no way out. John’s experimentation with his captive family also allows him the freedom to test the waters of adulthood, leading to deeply disturbing conclusions.
Written by screenwriter Nicolás Giacobone, John and the Hole favors style over the narrative. Pascual Sisto’s feature debut borrows heavily from the likes of Michael Haneke or early Yorgos Lanthimos. It’s evident that John’s story, and the bizarre framing story-within-a-story that pops in roughly thirty-minutes in, is meant as a cautionary tale of the pitfalls of growing up far too soon. Deciphering intent and meaning become far less clear beyond that.
It’s well shot. Paul Ozgur’s gorgeous cinematography, in 4:3, lends an almost ominous mood enhanced by a score mostly reliant on diegetic sound. The deliberately unhurried pacing and rhythm further throw you off-kilter. Shotwell is uncanny and unsetting as the sociopathic teen who cannot mimic basic human emotion, no matter how often he experiments or tries. While John dabbles with increasingly unnerving encounters out in the real world, his family unravel as desperation, starvation, and hygienic issues mount. A few brief moments indicate Sisto is attempting absurdist humor here; it’s played too dry to register. Though, Hall angrily chewing chicken nuggets and Farmiga’s embarrassment over bathroom situations prove to be unexpected highlights.
In the end, though, Sisto’s debut feels like a great idea stretched far too thin. John embarks on a series of disturbing social experiments, and it ultimately doesn’t amount to much. There’s no real payoff in store, and it’s frustrating. Not even the premise, a family held captive in a deep hole, seems to factor into the story as much as it should. There’s subtext to be gleaned, but Sisto makes you work hard to parse its meaning. Like its titular character, John and the Hole is an enigma that Sisto has no real interest in answering. There’s a strong artistic vision, but one that rings hollow. John may be terrifying, but this psychological coming-of-age story is far too subdued and toothless to make a lasting impression.