“John and the Hole” -Both deep and shallow [MOVIE REVIEW]

Charlie Shotwell as “John” in Pascual Sisto’s "John and the Hole." Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

Charlie Shotwell as “John” in Pascual Sisto’s “John and the Hole.” Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

“John and the Hole,” written by Nicolás Giacobone and directed by Pascual Sisto, is an ambitious film that sends a rocket into space only to see it land flatly when a trivial side story derails its impact.

Reminded of a statement made in a fury of teenage angst when our son indicated that he thought parents were unnecessary and that he could have raised himself better without our interference, Giacobone tells that story.

Thirteen year old John, living an upper middle class existence in a bucolic setting with his father, mother, and older sister, spends his time away from the grind of school and homework playing video games, taking tennis lessons in preparation for a qualification tournament, and exploring the untamed nature surrounding his house. There’s nothing particularly unusual about his life. His parents cajole, rather than nag, him into pushing him to be “better.” His sister is loving and supportive but also totally involved in her new boyfriend. Mildly annoying but nothing extraordinary. In short, from most outside perspectives, he lives a life of privilege and entitlement. John is the quiet sort with dark, unexplored and possibly sociopathic, aspects to his personality that are hidden enough that he attracts little or no attention.

Michael C. Hall as “Brad,” Taissa Farmiga as “Laurie,” and Jennifer Ehle as “Anna” in Pascual Sisto’s “John and the Hole.” Photo courtesy of  IFC Films.

One day, wandering the woods outside his yard, he discovers a partially built bunker. Asking about it at dinner, his parents explain that they were popular a while back to protect families from disasters such as storms, or worse. This particular one went unfinished for any one of a number of reasons when the family that commissioned it moved away. Its very existence triggers all sorts of ideas, none of them good, and John begins to formulate a plan. Using his mother’s stash of sleeping pills, John drugs his parents and sister, drags them to the woods, and deposits them in the bunker. Now, he thinks, his life can begin. He has a car at his disposal, the parents’ ATM and password, and all the time in the world to play video games, eat whatever he wants, and not clean up. He visits his very perplexed and frightened family to bring them food and water. In his own peculiar way, this is all about him, not about them or punishing them for anything. They haven’t really done anything, they’re just an annoyance in the way of his personal freedom.

Had Sisto and Giacobone left it at that, they’d have had a very original and sardonically funny film on adolescence. But not content with complexity and humor, they added a second story line, treating the story of John and the Hole as a fairy tale told by a mother to her preteen daughter meant to prepare her for a cruel finish. The use of this addition diminishes the humor and point of the first and takes a unique feature and makes it a head scratcher. One is left with a “what the hell was that all about.” What a pity.

The main cast is uniformly excellent. Michael C. Hall (“Six Feet Under,” “Dexter”) is pitch perfect as a concerned but somewhat detached father; the luminescent Jennifer Ehle (“Pride and Prejudice,” “Zero Dark Thirty”) is the perfect upper middle class housewife disguising her frustration with pills, and Taissa Farmiga (“American Horror Story”) as John’s supportive sister is effective collateral damage to John’s machinations.

Charlie Shotwell (“The Nest,” “Captain Fantastic”), John, has the most difficult role and plays it to perfection. Seemingly immobile and without apparent motivation or empathy, he must take an ordinary teen from bland to future potential serial killer without raising an eyebrow, neither his own or those of the people who surround him.

Not to kill a dead horse, but the filmmakers took a delightfully dark film with an interesting insoluble dilemma and brought in an additional storyline that ended up tainting the whole with a bitter aftertaste. Again, what a pity.

Opening August 6 at the Nuart.

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