Charlie Shotwell in a scene from "John and the Hole" directed by Pascual Sisto. (image: IFC Films)

There’s a come a time in adolescence when you wish you could snap a finger and make your parents disappear. It’s liberating the first time they leave you home alone. Suddenly it feels like you’re an adult with no one telling you what to do. In “John and the Hole” the eponymous 13-year-old played by Charlie Shotwell (“The Nest”) decides to experience freedom by drugging his family and tossing them in a deep hole out back. He then proceeds to eat junk food, play video games, drive the car, visit the ATM, and invite his buddy over for a sleepover. As a parable, it’s an interesting premise, but the film’s realistic tone leaves too many unanswered questions.

Charlie Shotwell who played Ben in last year’s excellent drama “The Nest” is mesmerizing to watch as he saunters through Pascual Sisto’s debut feature. Part of the fascination comes from Shotwell’s ability to play disconnected so well. His emotionless face and apathetic behavior are so natural that one must wonder if he’s acting.

Why does John (Shotwell) toss his family in a hole out back? That’s the million-dollar question that the film doesn’t fully answer. Surely, there must be some repressed feelings from an incident in the past because on the surface everything seems to be fine. His family is upper class, they live in a beautiful glass house in the woods, his parents Brad (Michael C. Hall) and Anna (Jennifer Ehle) are loving, and John seems to have a good relationship with his older sister Laurie (Taissa Farmiga).

Written by Nicolás Giacobone based on his short story “El Pozo” the film lies in a grey area between horror and drama. John is not a little monster like Elias from “Goodnight Mommy” who was misguided but at least he had motivation. And if John’s motivation is simply to have a Kevin McCallister weekend, tossing the parental units in an uncompleted bunker (it’s not just a hole) seems extreme. AND, if you’re going to go to that extreme then the end result will more than likely be closer to actions committed by cinema’s evil youths, Damien, Kevin, or Isaac.

If you’re dealing with a fairytale you don’t need to explain all the how’s and why’s which Sisto uses as his hall pass by framing the story in the context of a mother telling her young daughter the parable of “John and the Hole.” But this also presents a problem because if anyone needs to be tossed in a hole it’s the mom telling the story. It’s frustrating because the audience is also left in the dark about the situation with this other family.

The cast is great, and the premise is intriguing but the film stalls and never goes where it needs to. Still, it’s a promising debut from Spanish filmmaker and visual artist Pascual Sisto.

(2 stars)

Now showing at The Texas Theatre (Dallas)

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Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.

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