‘John and the Hole:’ [Sundance 2021 Review]

Rating: 2.5/4

Adolescence dances on a knife’s edge. On one end, the childlike freedom of zero responsibilities, endless free time, when things just fall into your lap seemingly from the sky like rain water. On the other, the looming reality of bills, money, responsibility, sexuality, and the uncomfortable twilight world that is wanting to have both of these aspects simultaneously. It’s difficult enough for a neurotypical child to navigate; so what would it be like for a child with sociopathic tendencies? Pascual Sisto’s deeply unsettling film, John and the Hole, endeavors to find out.

John and the Hole follows the enigmatic, emotionless 13-year old boy John (Charlie Shotwell) as he attempts to turn his family’s home into a sort of Neverland, a place where he can feign the life of the adult he wants people to think he is without any of the risks involved. A task he accomplishes by drugging his mother (Jennifer Ehle), father (Michael C Hall), and sister (Taissa Farmiga) and leaving them in a concrete pit in the woods behind their house. As they starve, unravel, and attempt to get through this shared torment as a family, John has a friend over to play video games on his new TV and subsists on various forms of fast food, all purchased with his parents’ stolen money. He can do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, and can and does manipulate everyone he comes into contact with—to the point of learning to mimic his family members’ voices to make fake phone calls to back up his mounting pile of lies. However, the longer it goes on, the more John slowly realizes how non-adult he actually is, and how exhausting it is to maintain his web of sociopathic deception.

It’s very easy to portray psychotic mental illness in an over done or disrespectful manner. We see it all the time from the exaggerated character of young Norman in Bates Motel to the prolific releases of “multiple personality disorder as super power or demonic possession” style films like Split and Glass. Thankfully, John’s sociopathy is portrayed with appropriate subtlety, realness, and ironically, empathy. His family never treats him outright as different, but it’s clear that his sister knows something is going on underneath, especially as she is the one who instantly knows that John, not some intruder or burglar, is who’s responsible for putting them into the dark, muddy pit. 

His inability to function as a “normal” human being is also showcased in his interactions with the outside world. John genuinely seems to see all relationships as transactional, while simultaneously not understanding actual transactions. One day he’s baffled that his online friend doesn’t immediately want to go spend money that he stole from his family’s bank account, even more confused as to why he’s concerned about the sheer amount of money withdrawn. However, another day at a tennis lesson, he gets a very harsh wakeup call from his coach—someone he thought actually cared about him as a person—when he demands he make his mom pay up for several missed lesson payments. Perhaps most unsettling, he lures his mom’s best friend over to the house and tries to force her to stay overnight, and seems about five seconds away from trying to kiss a very grown woman before she leaves the house clearly disturbed. Only when he’s clearly in over his head, unable to function, wearing his father’s oversized blazer in an attempt to keep telling himself he has control and he’s a adult now, does he deign to release his family from their prison. Even their freedom is a transaction.

As unsettling and enjoyable as the film is, there are aspects that take you out of the narrative, some for long periods of time. There is a fairly unnecessary subplot involving a mother and daughter that we only see three glimpses of in the entire film: the mother telling her daughter the story of “John and the Hole” (an awkward attempt to add some sort of meta element to the film), the mother abandoning her daughter for honestly no reason whatsoever, and the daughter wandering through the woods containing the pit. They interrupt the flow every time they come up and, honestly, add nothing of meaning or value to the wider narrative, and it could have been a much tighter runtime without it.

Even with these awkward moments, John in the Hole is at least an entertaining and creepy insight into a darker side of the Peter Pan myth. To live in his Neverland, John tortured and traumatized those closest to him without a second thought. What if he had been a little older? What if he never had to leave Neverland? Would he even notice the rotting bodies in the lonely pit in the woods? Would anyone?

Images courtesy of Sundance Institute

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