Producers: Elika Portnoy, Alex Orlovsky and Michael Bowles   Director: Pascual Sisto   Screenplay: Nicolás Giaobone   Cast: Charlie Shotwell, Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Ehle, Taissa Farmiga, Lucien Spellman, Georgia Lyman, Samantha LeBretton, Tamara Hickey, Ben O’Brien and Elijah Ungvary   Distributor: IFC Films

Grade: C

In terms of style this first feature from visual artist Pascual Sisto has elegance and mood to spare.  But as a dark dramedy of adolescent angst “John and the Hole” is more baffling than compelling; it’s the sort of film that keeps tantalizing you with promises that something is about to happen, only to leave you with a shrug when nothing does.

The script, adapted by Argentine writer Nicolás Giaobone (who co-wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for “Birdman,” as well as “Biutiful”) from his short story “El Pozo,” centers on John (Charlie Shotwell), a thin, strangely withdrawn thirteen-year old living with his parents Brad (Michael C. Hall) and Anna (Jennifer Ehle) and older sister Laurie (Taissa Farmiga) in a big, modernist house nestled in some New England woods.  He does have a pastime—practicing hitting tennis balls under the gaze of an insistent coach (Elijah Ungvary) in preparation for some otherwise unspecified “qualies”—but apart from playing online video games with a pal named Peter (Ben O’Brien), he merely mopes around, bored, uncommunicative and vaguely unhappy. 

While desultorily trying out the new drone Brad’s bought him in the woods behind their house, John stumbles on a deep concrete hole—the remnant of an unfinished bunker begun by previous owners of the property, his parents warily tell him.  And that apparently gives him an idea.

After testing some drug-laced lemonade on the unsuspecting gardener (Lucien Spellman), John serves it to his parents and sister one night, and then conveys them by wheelbarrow to the bunker and deposits them in it, knowing it’s far too deep for them to climb out.  (While Sisto shoots John dragging them outside and trudging through the night with the wheelbarrow, he wisely avoids showing him dumping them into the hole—something that would certainly have caused serious injury.)  They awaken the next day bewildered and frightened, and when John appears at the bunker’s edge silently staring down at them, they can only slowly accept that the boy is responsible for their plight.

John leaves them there for days, wallowing in the mud that follows a rainstorm, and only occasionally tosses down food, blankets and other necessities.  Meanwhile he drives into town in his dad’s car to shop and use the ATM, goes to his tennis lessons, and pads about the house.  He even invites Peter to visit for a weekend, during which they continue with their video games and also use the swimming pool to hold one another under the water in an attempt to discern whether a near-death experience might reveal something remarkable.

“John and the Hole” tries to make this highly implausible tale somewhat credible by adding details about how the boy explains away his family’s disappearance, inventing a grandfather’s illness and their going to visit him (while he has to remain behind alone for those pesky “qualies”).  It also shows him cancelling the gardener’s employment so as not to be disturbed by him.  But ultimately he’s unable to allay the suspicions of his mother’s friend Paula (Tamara Hickey), especially after his curious demeanor and peculiar questions during one of her visits.  At one point the police show up to look over the premises—but typically, nothing comes of it.        

Giaobone and Sisto never spell out why John is inflicting such indignity on his family, nor do they deal with the consequences of his actions, choosing instead an ambiguous close.  But it appears that they mean to present a sort of allegory about a young person’s incomprehension at arriving at the cusp of maturity, longing to be an adult but not yet realizing what that means, and trying to become independent too soon.  Alternately, it could be intended simply as a portrait of incipient psychosis.

Moreover, they insert several scenes involving a completely different family, a single mother named Gloria (Georgia Lyman) and her twelve-year old daughter Lily (Samantha LeBretton).  The first occurs a half-hour into the movie, and introduces its title after the girl asks her mother to tell her once again the story of John; a second shows Gloria brusquely abandoning the girl to live on her own; and the third comes at the very close, with Lily, now alone, wandering the woods.  What these interruptions mean is left to the viewer’s imagination, but they certainly fit in with the passage from childhood to maturity, and may be meant as the “real” story at work here.

Whatever the case, the film certainly acts as a showcase for Shotwell, whose blank stillness and bland willingness to agree with anything people say to him artfully conveys the emptiness at the center of John’s life and his unformed personality.  The rest of the cast are distinctly secondary, though Hall, Ehle and Farmiga all do reliable work.  The other real stars are the behind-the-camera artists (cinematographer Paul Özgür, production designer Jacqueline Abrahams, costumer Alex Bovaird, editor Sara Shaw, composer Caterina Barbieri and sound designer Nicolas Becker) who manage to create an atmosphere of subdued tension that works in the moment even if in the end it doesn’t bring much of a payoff.

Thanks mostly to Shotwell, Sisto’s debut creates an eerie spell that, unhappily, dissipates as the narrative moves on.  The film is rather like a trip down a rabbit hole that leads more to befuddlement than wonder.