The feeling that runs through director Pascual Sisto’s full-length debut, John and the Hole, is ennui. It is a particular type of ennui, the type that arises in a young person living in a contemporary upper middle-class household. John and the Hole occupies the same space as We Need to Talk About Kevin and the more recent Luce. John (Charlie Shotwell) is a pre-teen incapable of displaying anything beyond flat emotions perhaps because he lives in a regulated bourgeois environment devoid of passion. John’s mother (Jennifer Ehle) is medicated. His father’s (Michael C. Hall) advice regarding John’s drone is: “Always read the instructions.” John’s activities consist of playing with his drone, playing tennis on a video game console, and taking actual tennis lessons that are focused and precisioned to win tournaments and not meant for mere enjoyment. Sisto effectively conveys in two scenes the unimaginative and rule-dependent universe John inhabits. The first scene involves an off-camera teacher grilling John on a math problem. John answers correctly. When the teacher presses him to elaborate on how he arrived at the correct answer, John does not know. In the second scene, John’s sister (Taissa Farmiga), abruptly leaves a family meal when she hears a car honk outside. It is her boyfriend picking her up. A bourgeois line has been crossed and displeasure is clearly conveyed by John’s parents. Boyfriends are expected to knock on the door and introduce themselves.
That is a sketch of the John in John and the Hole. What about the hole? It is a hole in the ground discovered by John one day while flying his drone in the forest surrounding his home. We learn that it was an unfinished bunker. John grinds up his mother’s pills, drugs his family, drags them through the forest, and plunges them down into the hole. John then goes on to live the life of an adult. He has the house all to himself. He can eat whatever he wants—mostly fast-food. He gets to drive his parents’ car and takes out as much money as he wants from the ATM. In short, imagine a moodier Home Alone. Occasionally, he pays a visit to the hole and throws down some food for his starving parents and sister.
Is John rebelling against the constraints imposed by his parents? Is he roleplaying at what it is like to be an adult? Are there psychoanalytic/Freudian processes at work here? It is very hard to say. The ambiguity may bother some. It does not bother me. What really bothers me about John and the Hole are the scenes involving John’s family once they are in the hole. The majority of the film is spent on John and his life after dumping his family down the hole. The scant time spent on his family feels like filler, like an attempt at a palate cleanser after so much focus on John. This is understandable given that one can only take so many scenes of John driving, playing with the house lights, and running wild through the house. But again, if the scenes involving the family were meant to break up the narrative, they should have been richer, they should have added more to the story. There is also a subplot involving a young girl and her mother. There is some thematic connection between John and the young girl, though the connection is quite nebulous. Is the young girl being told a story about a boy named John and the once upon a time he threw his folks down a hole? It is very hard to tell.
Sisto gets the mood right in John and the Hole. There are scenes that work quite well and convey that Sisto is a gifted director who knows what he is doing. It is the unevenness and jaggedness of the story, its inability to gel, that punctures the film’s sails. Given John and the Hole’s strengths, we can be confident in better work to come from Sisto.
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