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"John and the Hole"

“John and the Hole” presents a promising premise not seen to its potential

Charlie Shotwell appears in “John and the Hole” by Pascual Sisto, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute | Photo by Paul Özgür

Dealing with puberty turns deadly in “John and the Hole,” a film featured in the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Although the premise is enticing, the film did not deliver.

The Sundance Film Festival is one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world. The films shown here are often the ones that generate the most buzz when they release worldwide. 

As a result of the pandemic, the festival was forced to go online. Fortunately, the Gateway Film Center was chosen as a “satellite theater” — one of a select group of theaters given the opportunity to screen a select lineup of the festival’s most exciting films.

“John in the Hole” is a part of that lineup. The film generated a lot of excitement before Sundance because of its premise and the fact that it was selected to be shown at the 73rd Cannes Film Festival, arguably the most prestigious of all film festivals.

Directed by Pascual Sisto, “John in the Hole” is a psychological thriller and a coming-of-age film that centers around a 13-year-old boy, John (Charlie Shotwell), who discovers an abandoned bunker in his backyard. Wanting to experience the responsibilities of adulthood on his own, he drugs his family and lowers them into the bunker. 

From there he has free reign of the house and family finances. He spends his time and money as you’d imagine a teen would: on video games and fast food. As he struggles with his newfound freedom and with hiding his family’s disappearance from friends, things come to a head. 

“John and the Hole” is clearly heavily influenced in its mood and writing by the works of Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos (director of “The Lobster” and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”). Lanthimos’ films are otherworldly, psychological thrillers written with quick-witted, dark humor where the characters speak in unsettling and bizarre robotic intonation. 

Sisto’s first film as a director attempts to portray a diluted version of Lanthimos’ style. It falls short, though — lacking in humor, a cohesive tone and depth that Lanthimos’ films possess. I couldn’t shake the feeling I was watching a bargain-brand production of one of my favorite directors.

Building off of that, the casting was picture perfect. Shotwell is at the exact age himself where he is growing into his body with bodily proportions that don’t match: he is gangly, his hands are massive and he swims in his clothes. His performance is by far the best in the film, grasping at the more bizarre aspects of the plot. 

It’s like John was dropped in from a Lanthimos film while the other characters are from a typical coming-of-age drama. It’s possible that this was intentional to alienate John further, but it feels like the different tones are at war with each other. There are even some inconsistencies within John — sometimes he is off-putting and weird, such as in an uncomfortable scene where he attempts to kiss his mother’s friend. Other times, he acts like a regular teen who annoys his sister and plays PlayStation with his friend. 

I would have loved for the movie to lean into its uncomfortable weirdness and shock me more, but it ends up playing it too safe. By the end of the movie, I found that I had been holding my breath for something evocative to happen, but it never does — only ever flirting with the possibility. 

In fact, very little of consequence happens at all throughout the entire movie. The bunker housing his family — which should set this movie apart from other coming-of-age films — is hardly ever visited within the film. It is mostly a few scenes where John stops by to drop off supplies. It makes that plot-point feel like a shallow gimmick that was used to get butts in seats rather than a fleshed-out idea. 

“John in the Hole” is a great premise that unfortunately plays with its cards too close to its chest. The performance was great, but I found the rest of the film to be lackluster. I wanted a film that had a unique voice and perspective on the coming-of-age drama, but I ended up getting a lesser version of films that already exist. 

Rating: 2.5/5

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