Oak Cliff Film Festival 2021
Greetings again from the darkness. Why would anyone be surprised that the actions of a teenager make no logical sense? Thirteen year old John (an excellent Charlie Shotwell, CAPTAIN FANTASTIC, 2014) comes across as a shy kid, and a curious one as well. He’s a talented tennis player, enjoys going head-to-head in video games with his online friend, and even plays piano. Despite his upper class family life, we sense there is something a bit off about John – although his busy parents are supportive and his banter with his older sister is pretty normal. But his emotionless demeanor sends our mind to dark, uncertain places … places we hope John doesn’t go, although we kind of expect him to.
This is the first feature film directed by Pascual Sisto, and the script comes from Oscar winner Nicolas Giacobone (BIRDMAN, 2014). You should know it’s not the typical narrative arc. One day John, with the help of his shiny new drone, locates a long-forgotten unfinished bunker in the nearby woods. The next thing we know, John has drugged his family and dumped them in that hole. That’s not a spoiler, as it’s shown in the trailer. When Mom (Jennifer Ehle, SAINT MAUD, 2020), Dad (Michael C Hall, “Dexter”), and sis (Taissa Farmiga, “American Horror Story”) awaken in the mucky pit, they are frightened and confused. When John appears to deliver food and blankets, he offers nothing in the way of an explanation.
As movie watchers, we have been conditioned to expect this type of situation will lead to significant violence. Instead, we watch as John steps into his newfound freedom. His image of adulting is what he’s observed from his parents: classical music, wine, cooking, milking the ATM, and driving the car. He has bypassed the coming-of-age stage, passed “go”, and moved directly into his version of adulthood. We know this can’t end well, but John is thirteen and isn’t mature enough, regardless of this manufactured freedom, to plan ahead.
This is a wealthy family living in a glass house … an unmistakable metaphor. A sense of entitlement and pursuit of money has distracted the parents from focusing on the importance of teenage years. Whether they realize this looking up at him from the bunker is debatable. John’s story is told by a mother to her daughter, an unusual sequence that acts as an awkward framing device. Cinematographer Paul Ozgur delivers terrific camera work with the house, the bunker in the woods, and John’s odd demeanor. This is an unsettling film that is more psychological drama than thriller or character study. It clearly borrows from two masters, Michael Haneke and Yorgos Lanthimos, but falls short of their best work (as you’d expect). Still, the film has a certain style, and reminds us that the moral to the story of a teenager’s actions often boils down to “don’t do that”.
Opens in select theaters and On Demand August 6, 2021