By: Kayla Caldwell
JOHN AND THE HOLE, directed by Pascual Sisto, is a coming-of-age story like none you've seen before. It follows John (Charlie Shotwell), a disillusioned, stoic 13-year-old boy, who is clearly having a moment. He seems to have a decent, privileged life, with loving parents, Brad (Michael C. Hall) and Anna (Jennifer Ehle), and older sister Laurie (Taissa Farmiga). His dad buys him a fancy drone, the family eats dinner together, and they all seem to get along. And yet, something is not right with John.
He's not present in school, has dead eyes during tennis practice, and when his parents take notice of his zombie-like behavior, he just says he's "tired." But there's something off about him that goes beyond the typical angst of puberty. After promptly crashing his new drone into a tree, John climbs up to get it, which leaves him with some cuts on his arms and legs. He heads home, and just walks into the pool, openly bleeding. Then he tells his dad that he's lost the new drone, even though we all saw him climb into the tree to retrieve it. He tells his family at dinner about an unfinished bunker - AKA, a large, deep, cement-walled hole in the ground - he had found while out exploring, and, man, is this kid fascinated by it.
John either doesn't seem to process - or care about - the consequences of his actions. At one point, he is out skateboarding, when something catches his attention. The distraction causes him to lose his skateboard, and he just watches it roll down the road, with seemingly no plan to go after it. The kid has a bizarre conversation with the family's gardener, wherein it seems far too important to him that the man enjoys a glass of lemonade. Next thing you know, the man is passed out cold on the lawn. I would say it is a shocking moment, but it's really nothing compared to what comes next.
John, like most children, is very curious about adulthood. He asks his mom about it. He asks a family friend probing questions about what it's like to be 50. Unlike most children, however, John is not willing to learn about these things the old-fashioned way... by just experiencing them as you get older. He instead decides to do his own experiment. No, he doesn't threaten to run away, and then stay at his friend's house for a couple hours. John drugs his entire family, and drops them into the hole in the ground. And then he leaves them there, with no explanation. They wake up terrified, disoriented, and worst of all, worried that whoever did this to them has kidnapped John.
Throughout the film, John shows little emotion, even at his family begging him for help. It's like Home Alone, but if Kevin were a sociopath rather than just a precocious child. John revels in his freedom at first, driving his dad's SUV with abandon. He invites a friend to stay over, and throws around cash he's taken from his parents' bank accounts, like a rapper in a strip club. The two boys behave pretty much how you would expect two 13-year-old boys without supervision to act. For anyone feeling "baby fever," JOHN AND THE HOLE could easily fix that. Watch as two, young teens play a game in the pool where they take turns trying to drown each other. There's a particularly chilling moment wherein John listens to his parents' voicemails so that he can mimic their voices, and cover up their disappearance, all while his family sits hungry, in an uncovered hole in the ground.
Of course, just like in Home Alone, John comes to find that being alone is only thrilling for so long. However, instead of just bringing his family back, John tries desperately to hold onto his independence... while not actually being alone. Once his age-appropriate friend leaves, John tries to bond with his mother's worried friend, and even the gardener. When all that fails, he makes risotto for his trapped family members, and joins them from the top of the hole for dinner. However, he doesn't answer any of his family's questions, and brazenly drinks wine from the bottle right in front of them. Sometimes he doesn't visit his family, but still checks in on them by spying on them at night with the drone he told his father he had lost.
The ending didn't quite go where I was expecting, but it fit the melancholy vibe of JOHN AND THE HOLE. To be honest, this film was a real struggle for me. JOHN AND THE HOLE isn't about jump scares or gore or twists. It's an unflinching look at this family who didn't even know they were in peril. JOHN AND THE HOLE is like a coming-of-age tale in bizarro-world. You're filled with so many emotions and questions, but the movie just wants you to sit in that discomfort. As a tender-hearted Cancer, it was hard for me to see John behave with so little empathy toward anyone but himself. I wanted a resolution. What is wrong with John? What are they going to do about him? But that's not what JOHN AND THE HOLE is about.
I should note there's also a subplot with a young girl named Lily (Samantha LeBretton), whose mother (Georgia Lyman) tells her the story of "John and the hole." When she turns 12, her mother abandons her, telling her she needs to make it on her own. It's strange and upsetting. It links the stories, because of the coming-of-age narrative, but is so abrupt and odd that it kind of pulled me out of the narrative.
Some psychological thrillers have twists that leave you thinking about the film for days. JOHN AND THE HOLE gets in your head by just confronting you with this stressful situation, and making you sit in some ugly feelings. It's an intense character study of at troubled, teenaged boy. Shotwell is brilliant and terrifying as the titular character. I would fear him.
JOHN AND THE HOLE highlights the chaos of puberty - the ego, the anger, the awkwardness, and the inability to see beyond yourself and your needs. John's is a dramatic and uncommon reaction to growing up, but it does manage to capture similar key emotions, all the same.
RLJE Films, a business unit of AMC Networks, releases IFC Films’ JOHN AND THE HOLE on DVD and Blu-Ray March 15, 2022!