The Sundance Film Festival has always been a great way to kickstart the year. For a short while, snowy Park City becomes a cinephile’s dream. Everyone gets bundled up and runs around, hyped up on caffeine and the rush of the festivities, to see independent cinema’s finest take center stage. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s festival is available online instead. Which, in all honesty, isn’t so bad. Being able to still check out new movies from the comfort of my couch is a delightful alternative.
The beauty of Sundance is that there’s a wide variety of movies to choose from when building a schedule as well. No matter the genre, there’s something for everyone to enjoy. In the case of “John and the Hole,” Pascual Sisto’s film is pitched as a psychological thriller, which is what immediately caught my attention. That, and its wild hook about a boy who drugs his family and proceeds to drop them into the hole. However, the movie is really anything but a psychological thriller. “John and the Hole” has an intriguing premise, but its slow pace, uneven tone and inability to remain consistent makes for a fairly dull and uninteresting story.
“John and the Hole” centers on, you guessed it, a young, and very strange, teenage boy named John (Charlie Shotwell). From the very opening scene, it’s clear that he’s an anxious and awkward kid. There’s a lot bubbling under the surface for him, and all of it comes to a head when he stumbles upon a hole deep in the woods near his family’s home. Well, the hole is actually a bunker, but it immediately gives him an idea. John decides that this is the perfect opportunity to live out his teenage life without any supervision, so he drugs his family and drops them down there. If this all sounds a little ridiculous, it’s because it is.
The unfortunate part about “John and the Hole” is that it starts off interesting and slowly (emphasis on slowly) loses track of its own end goal. For example, there’s a moment in the film, about 30 minutes in, where a mother (Georgia Lyman) and her daughter (Samantha LeBretton) appear. The story of “John and the Hole” is actually one that this mother tells to her daughter, which prompts the question if John’s story is a cautionary tale of some sort for children. It’s an interesting start, but unfortunately, these answers are few and far between, and Nicolás Giacobone’s script becomes so dragged out, with John’s actions making less and less sense, that you begin to wonder what the point really is.
However, despite the messy narrative, there are a few performances here worth acknowledging. Shotwell, for instance, masters the creepy-child-with-a-hidden-agenda vibe perfectly. Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Ehle and Taissa Farmiga — who play John’s father, mother and sister, respectively — are also great to see, but their characters feel hollow. It’s hard to feel connected to any of these characters, honestly. There’s a lack of genuine connection among the group, which makes it difficult to care about their plight as the story goes on
In the end, “John and the Hole” falls flat. It’s a beautifully shot film that, unfortunately, has nothing interesting or different to offer narratively and leaves more questions than answers. There’s definitely an interesting idea here, but it absolutely requires more digging.
“John and the Hole” premiered in the Feature category at the Sundance Film Festival and has a second screening available on January 31 at 9:00 a.m. Make sure to keep up with Shuffle’s Sundance shenanigans on Twitter and Instagram.