Sundance 2021: ‘John and the Hole’

John is the quintessential child of white privilege. His family of four is more than comfortable in their modernist house and no one ever feels the need to talk about the labor that’s paid for their luxury. And they love the kid. Even his older sister dotes on him. He’s a fine pianist, noodling Chopin on the grand piano set before a floor to ceiling window with an impeccable view. His parents are paying a tennis pro to prepare John for a state qualifying competition. Maybe, the pro says, trying to encourage John to stay engaged in his training, this is what you want to do, who you want to be. And he’s not wrong. If he wanted this, we know John’s parents would spare no expense to elevate him as far as possible. All John would need to do is bring his dedication, some effort, some desire. Not an easy ask, maybe, and made all the harder because John, with all that support, seems not yet to have developed desires of any kind. He is a compliant kid, maybe not so much by nature as from the result of not having a distinct need to push back. Until he does. The sources of John’s resistance are the great mystery of Pascual Sisto’s finely crafted John and the Hole

Having located, in the woods behind his house, the remains of a bunker—an abandoned project begun by a near-forgotten neighbor—John (a delightfully deadpan and vulnerable
Charlie Shotwell) develops a plot to leverage his family’s inclinations to sedation against them. He deposits his parents and sister, alive, at the bottom of a muddy, inescapable shaft, allowing himself the opportunity to do as he pleases. The plan to this point seems relatively well developed. But John’s subsequent freedom is not so easy to enjoy as it may seem, particularly when he has to account for his parents’ whereabouts and the stacks of cash he’s carrying around. Beyond that, though, John, interestingly, seems to lack much imagination. Given the premise of the film, we might imagine a wide-ranging and more or less perverse range of things a 13-year-old rich white kid might get up to, and get away with, in this situation (cf. 1983’s
Risky Business). But John is sort of a hole himself, not a complete blank or absence, but a bewildering entity. To say he’s unimaginative is not to say he isn’t bright. He may be the smartest guy in the room, despite his occasional lack of foresight or tact. He consistently befuddles the complacent suburbians around him (and their respectful hired help) with chess-like verbal moves, questions and shifts in subject, that are clearly designed to keep others off balance, to disarm more than unsettle, but only because these people see nothing particularly unsettling about John, who is bred, in a sense, to sail effortlessly into a padded complacency of his own. 

And maybe it’s this that’s gotten under his skin, some gnawing discomfort with a world that allows him no capacity for failure. “Always read the instructions,” his father tells him, referring to a gift he’s just given John, the best drone one can buy. As if the act of informing yourself this way will not only insulate you from harm, maybe even responsibility, but also reinforce your position of being in control. The advice has the impact of Dieu et mon droit. How ironic, even disturbing, that John feels the need, within this world, to re-exert his individual power over his family, a power with which he was born, in fact, as the male heir, and that everything around him confirms again and again with humiliating deference. Don’t we feel that his older sister adores him, will always forgive him, not just because he’s lovable, but because society tacitly demands her fealty?

Despite their obtuse attempts to read John’s behavior from their prison, his family (played by Jennifer Ehle, Michael C. Hall, and Taissa Farmiga) are no monsters. We may read their understanding of John’s direct, if challenging, age-appropriate questions—like “What does it feel like to be an adult?”—as “weird,” as innately cruel and ungenerous, but their response to their situation frequently feels like the kind of play we might wish John himself was capable of. They display a curiosity and intimacy the pariah lacks. But then, maybe this, too, is a sign of privilege: an overwhelming presence of refinement that makes it impossible for the family to truly regress toward something like humility, let alone savagery.

Read all of our Sundance 2021 reviews here.

Michael Mejia
Michael Mejia
Novelist and University of Utah professor Michael Mejia is a veteran crew member of such Hollywood classics as Carnasaur, Love, Cheat, and Steal, and The Day My Parents Ran Away.

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