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John And The Hole: Why You Probably Didn't Get It Or Like It

by Bonnie Joy Sludikoff 4 months ago in movie review · updated 4 months ago

a review, synopsis, and commiseration

John And The Hole: Why You Probably Didn't Get It Or Like It
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

In order to understand and appreciate Pascual Sisto's 2021 indie-thriller, John And The Hole, you need to be able to understand, and perhaps remember, what it feels like to be an adolescent. This is no "scary movie"- this is a horrifying movie: This is a film about the undefined void between childhood and adulthood; The misunderstood and often misrepresented time that breeds countless stories of shocked and disgruntled parents who can't conceive of why their perfect little teenager is hitting rock bottom.

Often, I am disatisfied by "artsy" films- I see loose ends, I wonder if they had cause to leave things so open-ended. Quite to the contrary, after two necessary watches of John And The Hole, I have a lot of observations... though I also have some questions. (I would have taken a third watch, but my 48 hour rental period ended.)

So, a basic pumpkin-spice latte synopsis (and the content of many online reviews) would tell you that John And The Hole is the story of a naughty little boy who confines his family to a hole in the ground...

But no, friends, that is not the plot; that's just the trailer.

This is going to include a lot of spoilers, so I recommend watching the movie first and then coming back to see if you agree with me. Go ahead, I'll wait...

OKAY.

The so-called main plot about John, a 13 year old boy who traps his family in a bunker for several days may or may not be meant as a "true" story within the movie. I can't give you a conclusive answer on that one as I have reasons to choose both sides of the argument.

What I do believe is that the B plot is actually the main plot, however little screen time it got! About 27 minutes into the movie, we take a break from John and his family to mysteriously cut to a little red-headed girl in a bedroom.

On my second watch I went back to try to capture how strange the dialogue is. In fact, the entire film has some odd choices. Things are off, but it's no accident. The little red-headed girl sits alone and her mother enters the room. Here is what I grabbed:

Mother: You finally cleaned in here. What did you use? Show me your pajamas. Do you want to go to the bathroom?

Girl: No.

Mother: You haven't left the room since yesterday.

I kept rewinding this scene because there are so many things that don't add up -- is the girl a foster child -- is she in some sort of facility? They don't seem like mother and daughter. Then the mother tells the girl, your father's car is blue. She says, "It is? Where is he?" The mother says she doesn't know. Did she ever know? Has the girl met her father? It's all very cryptic.

Let's pause to unpack something that I think is paramount to this film's contribution. In general, out in the world, there is a strange dynamic between most adults and children... even children who grow up in safe and loving homes. One key reason for this is that adults often lie to children. We won't waste time talking about whether that's harmful because this is a film synopsis, not an essay on parenting.

I will say though, while there's a time and place to withhold info, it affects kids when they are fed misinformation. This movie really tackles that dynamic- the way that many kids are treated as if they're invisible. The two opposite storylines share the same core problem- something somewhat resembling a combo of sheer neglect, inept communication, and a complete failure to see your child as an actual human, deserving of your respect and consideration.

Prompted by nothing, the red-headed girl gets up and moves her arm a bit-

Girl: I learned how to dance.

Mom: What did I tell you about lying?

Girl: I forgot.

And at the end of that strange scene, the mother offers to tell the girl a story- the girl requests the one about the hole.

"John And The Hole," the mother says knowingly. And we're back to the movie we had just watched for the first half-hour.

Is that story about John even a REAL story or is it actually meant to be a fictional story- an unsettling fable parents tell their children. Well, that's debatable. I don't have a definitive answer, but I have some observations based on the way the story was told.

Here's a big one: The plot of John And The Hole is just not possible, at least not the way it's depicted in the film.

Like many fables, it makes a cool/weird/scary story to tell- once there was a teenage boy who found a bunker and put his family in it- he brought them food, and eventually freed them... but watching it unfold, it's simply not logistically possible.

Could the film team have made it look possible? YES. This is not an accident. For one, it would be gruesome- it would change our experience if we could really see it and believe it.

Similarly to this tale, we probably wouldn't actually want to see a realistic version of the boy who cried wolf -- though grown ups love to tell the story. If we saw it depicted "realistically" on screen, we'd see a kid finally telling the truth, then dying as a consequence for his bad behavior. Some things only function as stories. (Also, please stop telling that story to your kids- it's incredibly problematic!)

No way does John (the John we see in this film) successfully drag his two parents and teenage sister out to the forest behind his home in a wheelbarrow and then throw them down a deep bunker- logically 20+ feet below the ground, without them getting hurt.

I have to wonder if the lack of realism is because this is meant to be just a story- a story being told by the mother of the red-headed girl.

Here is some more support for that theory- the story is primarily shot as an outsider- we don't get intimate close ups- we are often outside a room like we're playing with a dollhouse. And we are not privvy to much info about John’s inner world- part of which can be attributed to his disconnected, apathetic, and likely, mentally-ill character, but I think that's also because he's not truly the protagonist; We're not in his head.

All of that said, I think it's important to ask: why does he do it?

Well, I guess we should unpack the fact that he might be a sociopath. Under no circumstance would most kids act in this way. However, this isn't a serial-killer origin story. It's a nuanced tale of what it's like to be an adolescent - to deal with the battle to either gain more independence- which John thinks he wants, or more love/care/support, which the little girl wants at the end. These are both stories about what happens when there is no parenting- both children fall into a different void- a HOLE, if you will-- the same way many kids do when they try to cross the bridge from childhood into adolescence.

John makes a poor choice to climb a tree and ends up terribly scraped up; he has painful-looking wounds on his arms and legs, quite visible while wearing a t shirt and shorts. If I didn't mix up the timing- I really could have used a third watch...but I believe John actually finds out about the bunker right AFTER his accident.

So, he is at the table with his parents- totally scraped up, but covered up with long sleeves and pants so his parents don't see. His dad is a little disgruntled about his expensive drone, but he doesn't find out what happened to his son's body- it seems likely he will be in some sort of trouble.

At the table, John asks his parents about the hole in the yard- they say it's a bunker. What's a bunker, John asks... And funny enough the parents don't even give him an honest or sensical answer.

Why don't they? That strikes me as strange, but also kind of brilliant given what I feel this film is about. Parents often fail to provide correct/honest answers for basic questions, and based on several years as a nanny and having grown up in a house with questionable parenting, I almost always disagree with this practice.

Most people would think of a bunker as an underground shelter, typically used in wartime... John's parents tell him it's for a storm-- funny enough, a storm is a temporary situation, and can be a synonym for a problem.

John is a very literal child (common with kids on the spectrum and many other issues) who is having a problem. He's scraped up and his parents can't see him or they might be mad. I can't confirm this theory- but at the end, when his parents rescue him and he looks up at them, his wounds have healed. It's also the only time anyone has touched him, other than his sister, who kissed him on the forehead two times in the film. It seems that his sister's apology may be part of what turns the situation around.

When she says she's sorry, John asks his sister what she's sorry for and she doesn't know... many kids never get apologies from the grown ups in their lives... It seems like a meaningful moment for John, who never feels heard or loved.

But even the teenage daughter struggles with a lack of basic parenting. At one point, in the bunker, the parents are discussing the party the mother was supposed to help organize- their grown up lives are so important, but then their teenage daughter says "I miss Josh." (hey boyfriend). Instead of honoring her feelings her dad simply says, "You barely knew him." It seems like such a weird response while they're in a bunker, possibly sentenced to death... a weird moment to remind a teenager that her feelings are not valid. This story is largely about grown-ups missing the mark and what that costs their children.

The choice John makes to trap his family is a bad one. That said, what we have to understand is that he does know right from wrong. All kids live with rules. John shows us several times (through his actions) that he understands rules. The main place we see this is in the kitchen with his friend.

His friend sticks a spoon back in the peanut butter after licking it. John calls him out. That's gross. All the monstrous drugging and kidnapping, but this kid knows its wrong to mess with the peanut butter. Then, he makes a your mom joke to his friend who questions him. John IMMEDIATELY backs down- because he knows the rules- you do not mess with someone's mama or you're likely to end up in a fistfight.

The world, the parents who don't know what to do, and the schools trying to keep some sort of order want us to believe “problem children” don't know how to live in society- and that is where they fail. What this film shows us it that John is a kid making an intentional manipulative choice. He wasn't a kid who didn't understand, he was a socipath choosing to live outside the rules.

Why does that matter? Well, that's the basic lesson- one many adults don't learn and therefore end up in jail. But we don't talk much about kids. Kids have to cross major lines to be held accountable- that's how we run our society.

As a nanny who looks after one kid who verges on lacking in empathy, there is a lot of "getting in trouble" at the nanny house. But what I teach my nanny kid is, you are responsible for how your choices affect someone...whether you meant to do something or not. It doesn't matter that it was an accident.

Was John just waiting for his wounds to heal to avoid taking responsibility for his accident and the resulting wounds? Is that the whole reason he locked his family away in the first place? Was he laying face down in the pool (at the end) to avoid taking responsibility?

After the little girl is left on her own and she walks into the yard- it seems we are in the same place where the John story took place, though no notable proof- in the last shot it seems she sees something- is it the bunker? While I said I believe that might have just been a "Story" as told by the girl's mother, perhaps what WE (as the audience) saw in the film was the story version, but perhaps there is also a real version... That's what I'd like to believe, because I think that's a cool twist. If I'm right, what we saw was supposed to be a "movie" version of a real story.

What do you think???

movie review

Bonnie Joy Sludikoff

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