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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

Review: John and the Hole (2021)

John and the Hole is another odd entry into the wonderfully varied plethora of coming-of-age stories at our disposal through cinema, TV and literature. They’re often warm, light-hearted affairs designed to tug at our heartstrings as well as trigger our sense of nostalgia, as we see ourselves in the central character(s) coming to terms with themselves and their divine purpose in life. On the opposite end of the lighter, fluffier side of the coming-of-age spectrum, you find the darker, more nihilistic stories that tend to ring truer than we would like to admit. John and the Hole belongs to that side of the spectrum where works like Raw, Carrie, The Witch (just to name a few) hold up a mirror to show the darker side of our psyches. It’s a disturbing and darkly humorous debut feature from Spanish artist Pascual Sisto that borrows heavily from the likes of Yorgos Lanthimos and Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk about Kevin.

The plot is simple: John discovers a hole at an abandoned construction site in the woods near his family's house and decides to trap his family in it. Why on Earth does he do this? This is just one of the big questions that makes John and the Hole a fascinating exercise in metaphorical storytelling through adolescence and the perceptions that said-adolescence makes of what it means to truly grow up.

It’s a slow-burning and often emotionally distant affair that places itself snugly next to the works of Yorgos Lanthimos. It may not have the same level of dead-pan delivery and fucked up-ness of his works, but it could very easily be set in the same universe of his films. John and the Hole may seem straightforward in how it will attempt to surprise and shock its viewers, but the film takes a massive left turn about thirty minutes in, completely up-ending where we thought the film was initially going, as well as questioning our ideas of what the overall message will and can be. I don’t want to spoil it here, but it drives home the ideas of what growing up means through the different perspectives of both child and adult that can be completely cruel, unfair and even illogical as we make sense of our own growth from child to teen to adult.

John constantly asks bizarre questions to things that one could only assume he should know the answers to, especially considering he is 13. This is an eerily accurate portrayal of how strange a child’s mind can be in how they analyze and process the world around them. At the beginning of the film, he answers a math equation in class. When the teacher asks him how he got to the answer, he doesn’t know. It’s just the answer. This coincides perfectly with his impulsive behaviour in getting to those seemingly unexplainable answers because it is what it is, no use in trying to explain the exact motives behind actions. What will happen if I crash this drone in the trees? What will happen if I kick this skateboard down the road? What if I threw my family in the hole? Why do all of these things? What starts as a genuine curiosity in seeing the result of impulsive actions, turns into an exercise of trying to understand what it means to grow up and abandon the freedoms and innocence of childhood.

After John’s family wakes up to find themselves trapped in a deep hole, John doesn’t come to their aid. Instead, he attempts to be in his parents' shoes as adults. He mimics his parents voices as he phones and cancels various appointments, he learns to drive, he cooks risotto for his family. He does what is expected, or what he perceives to be what grown-ups are meant to do. It's as if John is an alien sent to Earth, trying his best to understand human behaviour and why they do what they do. This draws back to the argument that some things might not have a logical answer, and in this narrative's case. Although we are pushed towards a direction into why John does what he does, the film is smart enough to allow just enough speculation as to why he really does what he does. But at the end of the day, John is still a child. He begins to cancel any notion of trying to understand the responsibilities of adulthood and finds himself reverting back to his childish ways.

This is why it’s so scary to relate so easily to John and the Hole as an adult (for me at least), because we understand how all of this feels, and growing up too fast at too young of an age can be detrimental to one’s growth emotionally and psychologically. The film appears to be getting a large amount of hate from audiences as they deem it unrealistic or just illogical, but at the end of the day, apart from not understanding metaphorical storytelling, I think audiences are too afraid to admit that they have seen themselves in John at some point in their lives - wishing they could follow through with the impulses John so readily follows through with. His actions on screen work as sort of a simulation of those impulsive thoughts we have had at some point. What if I threw this ball at the window? What if I crashed my car into that tree? What if? What if? What if? I may be revealing myself to be a crazy person, but the difficulties of growing up, becoming an adult and desire to be impulsive are frighteningly relatable to me.

The entire cast is outstanding, but the film’s creepiness reaches another level thanks to an incredibly unsettling and nuanced performance by young Charlie Shotwell as John. The film was always going to rely heavily on whoever was playing John. Shotwell does this with flying colours, providing a highly assured performance that manages to balance curiosity, innocence and menace all so seamlessly. His bizarrely unnerving questions and reactions to answers make him an incredibly hard character to dissect as he displays both psychopathic and sociopathic behaviour, allowing for him to never give anything away to the audience for free. This is intentional, and with his performance, he makes John a fascinatingly distant character that barely lets you in, delivering one of the most complex and difficult performances of the year so far.

John and the Hole is a slow-burning atmospheric thriller on the surface, but at its core, is actually a pitch-black coming-of-age comedy about prematurely growing up. Love it or hate it, John and the Hole is undoubtedly a challenging piece of metaphorical storytelling that is bound to be one of the most discussed films of the year among those who choose to take the risk with it. Pascual Sisto is a filmmaker worth keeping an eye on.

Where you can watch it: Most VOD platforms (USA)

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