SUNDANCE REVIEW: ‘John And The Hole’ (2021) Imagines Coming-Of-Age Without Empathy

Rating: 3 out of 5.

“Though a refreshing deconstruction of the coming-of-age genre, the film otherwise reflects little depth.”

At some point in everyone’s childhood, they find themselves wishing their family away. To be left home alone would solve all their problems or, at the very least, guarantee a few hours of uninterrupted fun. Kids look to the stars with this wish, hoping a miracle will grant them control of the house—but John And The Hole depicts a character that goes ten steps further. Seizing an opportunity, 13-year old John (Charlie Shotwell) takes actions best described as sociopathic to claim control of his family home. Childish actions are accompanied by an apparent lack of empathy, making Shotwell’s performance all the more unnerving. However the work of its lead only takes the film so farm, while the script never quite meets the expectations it creates. Although it’s a refreshing deconstruction of the coming-of-age subgenre, the film otherwise reflects little depth, shying away from moments of further exploration.

Upon discovering an unfinished bunker in the nearby woods, John drugs his older sister Laurie (Taissa Farmiga) and parents, Brad and Anna(Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Ehle), putting their lives in his hands. Definitely a slow burn, the first act elects to portray the rhythm of John’s life both before and after his takeover. As the film progresses, viewers peer into the psyche of his character, grappling with his chilling nonchalance. As a psychological mediation, the film succeeds. Shotwell’s performance blends childlike curiosity with the methodical cynicism attributed to screens most notorious sociopaths. John is creepy, plain and simple, which is further emphasized by his moments of recognizable humanity. Similarly impactful is the performance of Farmiga, who isn’t allotted nearly enough screen time. Even in the background of scenes, Farmiga’s Laurie draws focus. Jumping through various stages of emotions — including panic, rage and calm acceptance — Laurie stays consistent in her clear understanding of who her brother is.

Despite the strength of the performances, empathizing with any of the family members is near impossible. This seems a somewhat conscious decision: the film spends much of its opening establishing the family’s affluence and superficial tendencies. Later scenes hint at emotional nuance but rarely delve further. Perhaps remaining detached from the characters is an intentional move, but it is nonetheless disappointing. Ehle as John’s mother gets the closest to evoking empathy for the audience, as she reflects on her relationships with her son, beginning to see the darkness within him. But this thread is quickly abandoned. Again, perhaps director Pascual Sisto and screenwriter Nicolás Giacobone seek to expose a weakness in the characters: how willing they are to drop nuance in favor of suppressing the unpleasant and focusing on their primal desire to escape. Even so, emotional resonance seems a glaring omission for a coming-of-age film. The inability to connect with any of the characters holds the film back, reducing it to a psychologically intriguing premise with little to say.

In its further exploration of the family dynamics, the film approaches social analysis, meditating on the notion of classism but never delving into commentary. It scratches the surface in ways that are ultimately unsatisfying. What is much more effective is its fresh take on the coming-of-age subgenre: to say that John comes of age in an unconventional way would be an understatement. He seizes the transition for himself and thus, misunderstands it. His failure to even comprehend what makes adulthood stunts his growth in its path. Meanwhile, in the hole, his family members are without the things that characterized their own maturity. With nothing to do but regress, they are the film’s only transitions. 

For all its stumbles, John And The Hole asks so many of the right questions. Giacobone’s script ponders the definitions of adulthood while Sisto’s visual aesthetics trap characters within the confines of their childhood. The film is enigmatic and unsettling, and delivers on the promise of an intriguing premise.

Dir: Pascual Sisto

Prod: Nicolás Giacobone, Ross Jacobson, Jennifer P. Dana, Tony Pachella, Mark Roberts, Phil Hoelting, Marco Vicini

Cast: Charlie Shotwell, Taissa Farmiga, Jennifer Ehle, Michael C. Hall