It’s hard to say what’s going on with John, the titular preteen who decides one day to drug his whole family and place them in an unfinished, abandoned bunker on the land near their home. And it’s as hard to know what’s going on with John—given no real depth or motivation to his character—as it is with the film that he’s in, a purposefully ambiguous genre hybrid that embraces so little of any one genre that it ends up feeling like it belongs to no genre at all. Similarly, John and the Hole does not want to adhere to any theme or thesis; it’s as if the film wants to be nothing, as if “It’s just, like, nothing. It’s just, like, not important, like, it doesn’t matter.” A completely detached exercise in bewilderment that’s enigmatic nature comes off less Lynchian and more “unfinished scriptian,” director Pascual Sisto’s feature debut aims for intrigue but settles comfortably in mediocrity.
John (an unnerving, annoying Charlie Shotwell) is like any other adolescent kid. He’s nervous to answer questions in class, he skateboards, plays video games, annoys his older sister (Taissa Farmiga) and revels in saying the word “fuck” over the phone with his belligerent friend Peter (Ben O’Brien), whom it can be inferred recently left with his family for Boston. John lives comfortably in an upper-class, suburban mini-mansion with sister Laurie, mom Anna (Jennifer Ehle) and dad Brad (Michael C. Hall). But, undoubtedly, there’s something off about John. Maybe he’s a little too quiet, a little too inquisitive—or maybe he’s just a little too normal, which I suppose is meant to be the point. Thus, John’s natural, childish desires to be rid of his family and have his house to himself manifest as John giving his family each a hefty dose of sleeping pills and lugging them into a nearby pit once intended to be a bomb shelter. Although, it’s just a little bit hard to believe that the scrawny, waifish boy could have transported his three adult family members (all of them probably near double his body weight) and gotten them safely into the hole without having to shove them haphazardly over the edge.
At first thought to be some sort of prank, John’s family quickly realizes that he has left them down there indefinitely, possibly for dead, though he occasionally visits to deliver them food and water while leaving their questions and pleas for help unanswered. In the meantime, John does anything a normal tween would do if he was able to be rid of adults for a period of time: Drives their car, takes out hundreds of dollars from their bank accounts, buys burgers and mountains of chicken nuggets, and has Peter come to visit him for a weekend where they do and eat whatever they want. A kid’s greatest dream, a world free of adults.
But it’s a little too easy for John to keep prying eyes at bay, like family friend Paula (Tamara Hickey), who catches wise, but no consequences come of it. Then there’s John’s genius plan to call and assuage the people most likely to inquire into his parents’ absence by doing terrible impersonations of their voices that would never fool anyone. John is, well, a little doofy—while Peter is visiting, the two play a game where they try to see how close they can come to drowning one another in John’s pool before they see a vision of the Virgin Mary. John’s plan is poorly executed and poorly maintained, but the adults around him appear to be just as out to lunch as he is. These leaps in logic and motivation would be slightly more forgivable if the screenplay weren’t credited to Academy Award-winning writer Nicolás Giacobone (Birdman), and if the film had much else going for it. The stagnant, detached camerawork and same flat, blue and green-tinted, washed-out cinematography that proliferates too many modern indie films as is—here, courtesy of Paul Ozgur—is unable to cushion the blow of a story that feels just as incomplete as its characters.
Of course, none of this accounts for the most puzzling feature of John and the Hole, introduced about 30 minutes into the film, just before the title card is finally revealed. It’s a bizarre framing device that I’m reluctant to get into, since it is made known so late in the film and could, perhaps, be considered a spoiler. All that to say, it is a truly baffling series of sequences that offers more questions for John and the Hole, leaving them unreturned but not at all in a good way. It only adds to this feeling, most present by the conclusion, that the film doesn’t know what it’s doing, but wants you to think that it does. The aspect most arguably taken for granted in cinema is ambiguity, modern films too often feeling the need to baby their audiences into complete and utter understanding. Sisto and Giacobone certainly have something they want to say about disaffected wealthy people and young kids’ resentment towards adult presence begetting a misguided desire for independence, but it only rings hollow. John and the Hole asks us to fill all the gaps in ourselves while doing nothing of consequence in return.
Director: Pascual Sisto
Writers: Nicolás Giacobone
Stars: Charlie Shotwell, Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Ehle, Taissa Farmiga
Release Date: August 6, 2021
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.