At many film festivals, Cannes comes to mind; audiences would openly jeer a disastrous movie like director George Ratliff's unintentionally silly, bad seed horror drama "Joshua." At Sundance, where the film made its premiere over the weekend, the audience I sat with was polite and only laughed at all the wrong places. The only person yelling back at the movie was I. The luxurious lives of an affluent New York City family, Brad Cairn, a Wall Street investor, his pretty wife Abby and their young son Joshua, who's something of a child genius, turns towards darkness after the addition of a newborn daughter.
Abby (Vera Farmiga) sinks into severe depression. Brad (Sam Rockwell) remains optimistic that things will work out at home. The mystery is Joshua (Jacob Kogan), a soft-spoken boy whose orderly wardrobe of pressed khaki pants and buttoned-down shirt reveals him as something of a little man. But matters keep turning bad, and as they do, young Joshua is always nearby.
In the spirit of Sundance politeness, it's worth noting that "Joshua" is a plush misstep, a glossy drama equal in look and technique to any first-class studio production thanks primarily to cameraman Benoit Debie and costumer Astrid Brucker. The cast is earnest, especially Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga, who have to shift moods from one extreme to another. They only come off false due to the haphazard story unfolding around them. The toughest challenge belongs to Jacob Kogan, a young newcomer, who struggles under a one-note character. He's more prop than person. Ratliff, the director of the wonderful documentary "Hell House," who co-wrote the script with David Gibert, never satisfactorily explains if Joshua is bad, emotionally handicapped or some disturbed genius looking to remake his family. I'm not asking for complete transparency from a mystery thriller like "Joshua." I just want a little coherency about what's happening with its title character.
The one standout scene that shows the film's creepy potential is when Joshua watches his fellow students perform poorly at a school recital and then intentionally botches his own piano performance. He wants to belong, to be like the other kids but knows he's different. It's a wonderful sequence that hints at the dangers to come. The misdirection that derails the suspense tale comes from a hodgepodge of cinema appropriation as Ratliff borrows from "The Omen," Joshua is constantly popping up in dark hallways, "Rosemary's Baby," the stately Dakota Building is the home of this stressed-out family, and "The Tenant" as Abby hears noises come through the ceiling from the apartment.
In its climactic moments, set outside the Brooklyn Museum, Ratliff even appears to borrow liberally from the Odessa steps sequence in "The Battleship Potemkin." It sounds silly, but the silly is standout feature of this painfully funny film.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Steve Ramos is an award-winning film writer based in Cincinnati, Ohio. When not on assignment, he maintains the blog Flyover Online.
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