Sundance 2021 review: ‘John and the Hole’ belongs in a ditch

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Marketing materials for the new film “John and the Hole” call it “a coming-of-age fable.” And some critics say it’s a thriller.

But the darkly comic movie, which premiered last weekend in the Sundance Film Festival, would more accurately be described as the nihilistic machinations of a tiny psychopath.

He’s not a gremlin — he’s John (Charlie Shotwell), a quiet suburban boy who plays tennis video games all day and relies mostly on one long-distance friend for companionship. One day, he stumbles on an unfinished underground bunker in the woods beyond his backyard. It’s a deep, muddy ditch with no ladder or plumbing.

That’s when this little punk — who, so far, has given us no impression of discontent — drugs his mom, dad and sister and plunks ’em in the hole. A felony for the whole family! They wake up cold and confused, trapped by an awkward teenager for no expressed reason.

Director Pascual Sisto and writer Nicolás Giacobone would seem to be commenting on Generation Z’s love of isolation — Snapchat, TikTok, online games, anything but in-person interaction — and taking it to its most extreme conclusion. John’s parents (Jennifer Ehle and Michael C. Hall) and sister (Taissa Farmiga) are, to him, no different than “Sims” characters, and therefore, easily banished underground.

But in telling an ambivalent story, Sisto has opted for an ambivalent tone. There is no drama — or stakes, even — as the days tick down and the hole dwellers get more disgusting and weak. It’s the airport monorail of movies: sleek, slow and anticlimactic.

Farmiga, Ehle and Hall play dirty-but-forgettable roles that don’t change and exacerbate the film’s benign ending, which confirms the growing suspicion that you’ve been wasting your time.

John, meanwhile, participates in somewhat amusing “Home Alone” antics back at the house. He buys a large flat-screen TV to play yet more video games, withdraws hundreds of dollars out of the ATM using his parents’ debit card and invites his pal over. The average person has more fun on a lockdown Tuesday.

The movie’s sedate tone is actually reminiscent of Scandinavian stage plays: The four-person family home is geometric and IKEA-like, the parents are generically rich, everyone’s voices are colorless and nature is frequently stared at. That could be why it was originally picked to premiere last year at the Cannes Film Festival.

“John and the Hole” had built some buzz prior to Sundance because it was selected for the French fest before it canceled due to the pandemic. And, like that loner you met in your high school drama club, it might fit in better someday when it moves to Europe.

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