Selected as part of the cancelled 2020 Cannes Film Festival, John And The Hole is finally screening for audiences at this year’s virtual Sundance Film Festival.
Surely, had the film debuted on the Croisette, this family psychodrama would have earned comparisons to something from the mind of Yorgos Lanthimos. Instead, the promise of John And The Hole falls flat, delivering only a disappointing glimpse at what might have been.
On the surface, the premise of first-time filmmaker Pascual Sisto’s film is quite simple: 13-year-old John (Charlie Shotwell) puts his family in a hole — an abandoned and incomplete bunker in the woods behind his family’s home. A weird kid, John has perfected the blank-eyed stare and a relentless and uncomfortable habit of questioning. “When do you become an adult?” he asks. To test out his hypothesis, he decides to drug his parents (Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Ehle) and sister (Taissa Farmiga) and place them in the bunker. John assumes more adult responsibilities at home and delivers infrequent supplies to keep his family alive, confused, and miserable.
Taking on new responsibilities seems to be all that the emotionless John wants, which is not enough to sustain the plot. He has an ideal and loving family, a nice home, and he shows promise as a tennis player. He has friends and attends a private school too, but John isn’t looking for an adult-free life of partying. He’s not looking to break free from the influence of terrible parents, or to eat ice cream for dinner, Home Alone-style. Instead, John wants to learn to cook risotto and drive a car while listening to classical music. John wants to be an adult.
Shotwell shows promise as John but he’s not given much to do in this world. Similarly there’s only so much time his family in the hole can spend staring at the sky and hoping for a way out. In the end, they’re all just as bored as the audience. It’s not the hole’s fault either. They can be exciting — as proven by the 2001 thriller The Hole, which featured a group of teens trapped in a bunker they are unable to escape.
The film’s intriguing premise is never fully realized on screen despite doing a fine job of capturing an air of unease. The payoff here is non-existent, leaving Sisto’s film void of any purpose. John And The Hole may look like an arthouse horror flick but in the end, it’s really just a movie about being bored, whether you’re inside a hole or not.
John and the Hole screened as part of Sundance 2021, which runs to February 3.