This review was originally published after Zola’s premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. It has been updated for the movie’s public release. The movie is out in theaters on Aug. 6.
Logline: One day, 13-year-old John (Charlie Shotwell) drugs his family and dumps them into a deep pit in the woods. Then he makes risotto.
Longerline: Being a teenager sucks, but for John, the transition from aimless child to accountable grown-up is a crushing existential dread that’s left him numb. Suddenly, his math teacher expects him to solve square roots off the top of his head. His older sister (Taissa Farmiga) snips at him for repetitively bouncing a ball against her wall. Even the way his parents (Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Ehle) see him as a functional individual, asking him questions about his life and nurturing his love of tennis, seems treacherous through the fog of being 13. John takes this all in unfazed stride, but as he drifts from encounter to encounter, something is going through his head. As his mother later says, theorizing about what prompted her well-off son to incarcerate their family in an abandoned fallout bunker, “He asked me what it was like to be an adult.”
John spends little time weighing his decision to drop his family in a hole, nor does he plan the next steps for his new life. Left alone in a fancy home (he’s “Home Alone,” if you will), the boy has unlimited freedom — so obviously, he spends $100 on chicken nuggets and plays video games. He practices driving the family SUV. He calls up a friend for a party weekend. He buys a giant-screen TV to play more video games. John thinks far enough ahead to keep the charade going — he fires his parents’ gardener and hand-waves away his mom’s best friend — but it’s possible he’s more lost than before. He’s willing to give the situation time, despite his family slowly deteriorating in a pit, in order to find out.
What’s John and the Hole trying to do? Visual-artist-turned-director Pascual Sisto, working with Birdman screenwriter Nicolás Giacobone, resists the temptation to over-explain his thesis or the psychology behind John’s familial terrorism. Instead, methodical direction, combined with Shotwell’s observational, unaffected performance, leaves the story open to interpretation. (Or rather, probing by the kind of post-movie bar chatter the COVID era has left many of us pining for.) In the film’s press notes, Sisto touches on the topic of “affluenza,” a supposed condition in which privileged kids lose their ability to process normal behavior due to being afforded every opportunity and learning nothing.
That’s certainly a part of it, but there’s enough ambiguity in the film that eight different armchair psychologists will walk away with their own diagnoses. Like Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth and other recent films that build human stories off strange, extreme behavior, John and the Hole has the quality of a petri dish placed under a microscope. Action occurs, the camera records the action, and it’s on the viewer to draw conclusions. Shotwell strikes a difficult balance between being a warm, friendly kid and being dead inside that feels unique in the annals of disturbed movie kids. Hall, Ehle, and Farmiga do their duty, too, acting in a completely rational way considering the situation. That is, screaming for help at first, then losing their minds as the days pass by. I imagine this is what being trapped in a hole is really like.
An even weirder subplot/side story, involving a young mother preparing to abandon her 12-year-old daughter by telling her the story of “John and the Hole” and leaving her with a year’s worth of cash, adds more mystery to the proceedings. The detours raise more questions about parenting, and the very nature of the story, but again, it’s all up to us to figure it out. Giacobone gives the dialogue a poet’s touch to make both John’s story and the parallel narrative even more enigmatic.
The quote that says it all: “I was a balloon. A blue balloon. Filled with blue air. I floated. The sun was blue, the sky was blue. Nobody could see me in the blue sky. I was blue in the blue.”
Does it get there? By resisting any sensational dramatic twists or explanations, Sisto and Giacobone risk making a film that has nothing for the mainstream moviegoer to hold onto. It’s straightforward realism, but ultimately experimental. The characters have lived lives, but are clear pawns in a storytelling game. It’s a big “what if?” that will leave many saying “so what?”
But the level of craft John and the Hole brings to its ideas makes it worthy of chewing on. Paul Ozgur’s photography of the family’s swanky home and the lush forest area around them recalls the unnerving quality of Parasite. Synthy tracks by Caterina Barbieri externalize the psychodrama. The Euro-soul creates an automatic contrast with the American setting. It all works, with the viewer’s appetite being more of a variable to its success.
What does that get us? John and the Hole doesn’t hit like Lanthimos’ surrealist larks or Lynne Ramsay’s portrait of a school killer, We Need to Talk About Kevin, but it does ask provocative questions about modern children and their modern parents. (I guess what I’m saying is that it’s the good version of Modern Family.) Risks emerge as society becomes more attuned to the complexity of young people, and respects them as more adult than previous generations. Kids are still kids, and not every young person is on the same developmental track. Money, privilege, and personal philosophy all challenge the evolving norms. Why would a kid push their parents into a hole? Why wouldn’t they? Few movies ask the question, to be honest.
The most meme-able moment: The mother to her innocent 12-year-old daughter: “This is your life. Make your own decisions.”
John and the Hole arrives to theaters and VOD platforms beginning Aug. 6.