The expressionless face of a longhaired teenage boy stares at the unconscious body of his family’s gardener. He holds a heavy stick menacingly, and at that point we are not certain what he is going to do with it.
In “John and the Hole,” Spanish director Pascual Sisto toys with the viewer’s predisposition to think violence will ensue throughout his intriguing psychodrama about the threshold between childhood and adulthood.
That fear that things might go awry is not unfounded, as the calibrated plot of the screenplay by Argentine writer Nicolás Giacobone (“Birdman”) astutely conceives situations that constantly hint at the possibility of a gruesome turn. However, and surely intentionally on the artists’ part, that read of what’s on screen might depend partially on one’s jaded adult worldview.
While flying a high-tech drone, 13-year-old John (Charlie Shotwell), a hard-to-read adolescent, discovers a bunker, a hole in the ground, in the wooded area behind his family’s house. That literal glass house allows cinematographer Paul Ozgur to shoot from outside, as though observing mundane routines that are about to be upended. Instantly, an idea brews in the kid’s head: He’s putting his family on a time-out there.
Shotwell, a young star who could have easily gone the Disney route but has instead already amassed a collection of interesting titles (“The Nightingale,” “Captain Fantastic”), gives John a puzzling expression, not of malice but rather of stubborn curiosity. Whenever a grown-up utters a statement, he follows up with a pointed inquiry or a simple “Why?” Admitting his ignorance feels normal until he internalizes that maturity means holding all the answers, or at least pretending to.
With a swig of orange juice straight from the jug, John gets that final push of determination to drag his drugged father Brad (Michael C. Hall), mother Anna (Jennifer Ehle) and sister Laurie (Taissa Farmiga) into the underground cell. Looking up from inside the deep square-shaped hiding place, only the trees can be seen, which is visually beneficial to Ozgur’s compositions since the entire picture is crafted in a boxy aspect ratio. The hole creates a frame-within-a-frame effect.
Several minutes into the ordeal, Sisto cuts to a mother (Georgia Lyman, “I Care a Lot”) and her daughter Lily (Samantha LeBretton), who inadvertently reveal that, in their reality, John’s story is a cautionary fable. The girl, only 12, demands to hear of the boy’s misdeeds again. Later, this narrative frame provides a contrasting view. While well-to-do John is eager to get older, other children are forced to grow up too soon through abandonment and neglect.
Now the overlord and sole resident of the state-of-the-art abode, John enjoys the pleasures of independence, yet at every opportunity Sisto and Giacobone hint that this is just a boy playing at being a man, driving or cooking gourmet meals, who comprehends these acts only from his limited purview. In truth, all he wants to do is invite his best friend Peter (Ben O’Brien, “Manchester by the Sea”) over to play video games or eat junk food, proving that they still aren’t fully aware of the consequences their recklessness can cause.
The ambivalence and internal conflict the teen antihero demonstrates about his current age and what’s to come makes “John and the Hole” a fascinating study of what an accelerated version of that transition looks like and who we become when we forget the carelessness of youth. John skipping the coming-of-age journey for immediate emancipation is, in itself, his rite of passage. Even if the film is premeditatedly oblique and too precisely constructed in its cerebral machinations to engage with beyond an intellectual level, the ideas wrapped in its coldness are thought-provoking.
Based on his blank stare, one could infer John is unaware of social cues (testament also to Shotwell’s unemotional portrayal). However, he repeatedly seeks the validation of adults around him, from his tennis coach to his mother’s best friend. He wishes they’d view him as a peer and not someone to care for, and those exchanges are fittingly awkward. To accentuate the uneasiness, Sisto peppers the audio track with atmospheric sounds, like a tennis ball machine piercing one’s ears, and first-time film composer Caterina Barbieri’s chilling electronic score.
John associates being a grown up with refinement: classical music and expensive wine. His understanding is modeled after his parents. Sisto works from that assumption showing how the rest of the family devolves into more primal behavior when stripped of the modern comforts of their affluent status. They’ve also regressed into a more playful state, fully reverting the roles. Whatever the result of this incident, the clan’s dynamic won’t ever operate the same.
In a telling scene, John gives Peter a stack of cash from the family’s bank account and expects him to feverishly spend it, but the other boy wants to save it, causing a short-circuit in John’s mentality about money. If you have it, why not use it for instant gratification? At the same time, the storytellers commendably refrain from framing puberty in familiar raunchiness or angst, because the character they’re dealing with deviates from the norm.
“John and the Hole” plays like a suburban take on “The Little Prince” meets “Home Alone” devoid of humor, with a dose of an unnerving deadpan quality closer to Michael Haneke than to Yorgos Lanthimos. The behavior and speech here isn’t removed enough from believable human expressions to liken it to the Greek auteur’s films, though “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” comes to mind given the mild resemblance between Barry Keoghan and Shotwell’s restrained performances.
Nonetheless, Sisto’s commitment to thematic abstraction, and the cinematic delivery of those heady ideas through mildly stylized naturalism, puts him on a similar wavelength as those revered filmmakers. Not a bad outcome for an unusual debut feature.
“John and the Hole” opens Aug. 6 in select theaters and on demand.