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Into the Woods 

John and the Hole mixes the moral lessons of fairy tales into a psychological thriller.

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Sometimes, as a critic, you stand alone. Sometimes you hate the thing everyone else loves, and sometimes you love the thing everyone else hates, and it just comes with the territory. That notion manifested itself powerfully at the 2021 virtual incarnation of the Sundance Film Festival, where the U.S. Dramatic Competition entry John and the Hole had me convinced I'd seen one of the best films I'd see all year—while everyone else appeared to be reacting with at best a shrug, if not outright disdain.

Maybe it's unlikely that I'm going to turn on a lightbulb for those who saw John and the Hole as a pretender to the misanthropic deadpan thrones of Michael Haneke and/or Yorgos Lanthimos. It's certainly not an inviting film, with director Pascual Sisto's set-ups keeping us often at a physical distance from the movie's characters as well as an emotional distance. But there's so much more going on here than an alienating portrait of a budding sociopath—and the key, as it is to so many things in life, might just turn out to be Stephen Sondheim.

The bulk of the narrative focuses on John (Charlie Shotwell), a 13-year-old boy from a wealthy family that also includes his father (Michael C. Hall), mother (Jennifer Ehle) and older sister, Laurie (Taissa Farmiga). One day, while flying his new drone in the woods near the family home, John discovers the construction site where a neighbor started, but never completed, a deep in-ground shelter. After careful testing that includes slipping a mickey to their gardener, John drugs all three of them with his mother's sleeping pills, lowers them into the concrete-lined hole, and leaves them there.

The "why" behind John's actions is important, but before we get there, it's important to note that John and the Hole is a nested narrative. We learn that John and the Hole is itself a story being told within the film—by a mother (Georgia Lyman) to her daughter, Lily (Samantha LeBretton). That's a crucial component, because it positions everything else we're seeing as potentially unreliable. And, as that framing narrative itself unfolds through its brief, harrowing appearances, it reveals John and the Hole to be a fairy tale of the kind that parents have told their children for generations as a way to prepare them for the scary realities of adulthood, whether they're ready for them or not.

It's here that Mr. Sondheim becomes relevant—specifically, Into the Woods. That musical, which folded in elements of multiple iconic fairy tales, explored their thematic connection to the liminal ground between adolescence and adulthood, and fears like being alone in a frightening place, separated from the protection of parents. John and the Hole is about those stories that parents might tell, theoretically to help their kids deal with the moments when the parent can't protect them. But it's also a recognition that parents themselves can be terrible judges of what their kids are ready to know, and when. The single most crucial moment of dialogue in the film might be when Lily tells her mother that she's 12, not 13—and therefore, not really the same as John in the story the mother intends as a preparation for what she's about to do.

Nicolás Giacobone's screenplay for John and the Hole does ultimately explore the notion of what's going on behind the often-blank expressions in Charlie Shotwell's performance as John. The text goes out of its way to explain that nothing the family has done is "to blame" for how John is; even his older sister, after an incident where John is being particularly annoying, responds with a kiss on the forehead rather than a smack in the face. As much as the premise sometimes feels like Home Alone reimagined as a psychological thriller, John's experiment at being a grown-up is perhaps less about what he can do than what a family is willing to forgive, as indicated by an amazing late scene built around John's "test" of whether they still love him.

That's part of the story Lily's mother is telling, too, something that's less often explicit in our instructive fairy tales: We need the people in our lives who will forgive us for anything. As chilly as John and the Hole might seem, it's deeply felt in its recognition that, whatever may pass between parents and children, everyone wants to feel that when they walk into the woods, they are not alone, that no one is alone.

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