In the first of this film’s many long-held shots of thirteen-year-old John (Charlie Shotwell) alone, he’s asked by a teacher what the square root of 225 is – when nagged, he knows the answer but can’t explain how he got it. That’s pretty much the tactic of Pascual Sisto’s chill character piece, scripted by Nicolas Giacobone from his own short story ‘El Pozo’ – we see things happening, but have to supply our own workings-out. It’s not so much a question of trying to understand John as hoping you never get in his way – though this isn’t yet another study in teenage sociopathy, and what John does is a lot more complicated than becoming a school shooter.
What’s creepy is that we’ve all met – or been – kids like John … sullen, callous if not exactly malicious, always asking questions, irritating even to his friends, privileged but profoundly unaware of it, and not remotely interested in the feelings, comfort or moods of other people – especially his mother (Jennifer Ehle), father (Michael C. Hall) and sister (Taissa Farmiga). Shortly after discovering an excavated bunker on a neighbouring property, abandoned mid-construction, John puts a plan into action – after testing a knock-out drug on the gardener (Lucien Spelman), he mickeyfinns his parents and sister and hauls them out to the hole by wheelbarrow then leaves them there. Evoking The Hole (2001) and many subsequent wake-up-in-a-basement movies, the film keeps cutting back to the family in their plight, getting rained on, fed only when John remembers, half-convinced they’re going to die in squalour down here. Meanwhile, John sets about relishing his freedom – to play video games, have a pal visit, eat junk food, drive the family car and use a cash machine, keep up with his tennis and piano practice, half-drown himself in pursuit of a transcendent vision (his best friend has a friend who knows someone who saw the Virgin Mary under such circumstances) and generally mooch around. He spins excuses to the few adults who notice things out of place and, of course, without Mom, the house starts to look a mess. All the while, John never satisfactorily answers his own question – what does it feel like to be a grown-up?
The film occasionally cuts away to a frame story in which a mother (Georgia Lyman) seems to tell the story of John and the Hole as a fable to her twelve-year-old daughter (Samantha LeBretton), a narrative device that (among other things) means the title card comes half an hour into the film. The frame story hinges on an act that mirrors John’s disappearing of his family but is presented in even more blankly unlikely terms – upending the usual practice of a grounded world for the tale-spinner and more fantastical material within the story. That makes this a film that John would get annoyed with – he’s the kind of obnoxious literalist who’d obsess over logic (why does this family have a regular gardener but not a regular cleaner?) and submit ‘goofs’ to the IMDb. John asks the gardener ‘do you feel like a lemonade?’ then follows up with ‘so how does a lemonade feel?’ in precisely the way that’d make anyone – especially, say, a slightly older sister – want to slap him. John and the Hole is a challenging watch, but chews over a great deal of fascinating material. Shotwell, the lead in the horror film Eli, is up there with vintage Martin Stephens as creepy, complicated kid. Something is missing in John – hence the title – but the film wonders whether something isn’t missing in all of us.