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Review: A disaffected teen imprisons his family in ‘John and the Hole’

Charlie Shotwell looks into an opening in the ground in the film “John and the Hole”
Charlie Shotwell in “John and the Hole.”
(IFC Films)

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Judged solely by its title, “John and the Hole” shouldn’t surprise anyone. Opening this cold, unsettling coming-of-age story is the stoic John (Charlie Shotwell, “The Nest”), struggling to provide a taciturn teacher with an answer to a math problem. His blank expression, caught in an unnerving close-up, yields few indications of the storm brewing within him.

In his directorial feature debut, Pascual Sisto, filming an adaptation of “Birdman” scribe Nicolás Giacobone’s short story “El Pozo,” provides an intriguing yet deceptively simple setup whereby John drugs his family and abandons them alive in a deep hole, allowing him to live a fantasized adulthood.

But this psychological horror isn’t entirely predictable. The title card doesn’t appear until 30 minutes into the film, where we meet Lily (Samantha LeBretton), a 12-year old girl living with her mother (Georgia Lyman). Lily’s mom, who eventually leaves her daughter to fend for herself, often tells her stories named “Charlie and the Spider” and “John and the Hole,” making the film we’re watching a tale within a tale about the pressures of growing up.

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John is a quiet teen, who often asks odd questions (“Why doesn’t the pool water feel like real water?”). His mom (Jennifer Ehle) and dad (Michael C. Hall) heed no notice. His sister (Taissa Farmiga) lightly kisses him on the forehead, even when he’s being a twerp. They’re a well-off, loving family, occupying a cozy modern home in the middle of the woods.

But John isn’t happy. His tennis qualifiers are arriving, and it seems like no one cares. Near their property lurks a barely begun bunker, a cement-clad square hole leading down a couple stories, waiting for a few new occupants to arrive.

Sisto is intrigued by what it means to be an adult, to think about death, to consider the rules for living. Once John plants his family in their dank, underground prison, he discovers how warped his beliefs concerning adulthood are. He learns that money doesn’t solve everything. That sometimes loneliness is the price of freedom.

To impart these lessons Sisto utilizes a dark comedic touch: One sequence finds the teen and his Boston-based friend Peter (Ben O’Brien) purposely drowning each other in the pool so they might see the Virgin Mary. In other scenes an uncomfortable verve bellows, such as when John comes onto his mother’s 50-year-old best friend Paula (Tamara Hickey), much to her disgust.

But Shotwell’s assured physical performance carries this film. His body stands rigid, a neophyte to the burden of responsibility. We’re not supposed to root for John. He did, after all, drug his unsuspecting family and leave them in a hole with nothing more than a flashlight and their pajamas. But it’s difficult not to bestow some empathy onto him due to his loneliness. Shotwell’s steady hand, portraying a sociopath taking the most extreme path to garner attention, also imbues the character with pathos.

Unfortunately, the rest of the cast is severely underutilized. Especially since no hard-earned truths or secrets are revealed in that subterranean prison, an oddity considering how long they stay down there. Sisto also leaves Lily’s subplot underdeveloped, and the film meanders in a similar fashion to John.

By the end, when John realizes he can’t make it on his own, and his family surmises their hand in these events, the quiet conclusion might leave some wanting. And yet the chilling atmosphere wrought by Caterina Barbieri’s anxious score, the deep focus of cinematographer Paul Ozgur’s lens, and Shotwell’s performance are enough to make “John and the Hole” a psychological thrill worth living.

'John and the Hole'

Rated: R, for language

Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes

Playing: Starts Aug. 6, Landmark Nuart Theatre, West Los Angeles; Vineland Drive-in, City of Industry; also available on demand

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