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Joshua (2007)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Look Out, Damien. There's A New Kid On The Block"
4 stars

There was once an episode of “Seinfeld” in which the gang sat down at the diner and pondered what Damien, the little kid from “The Omen,” was supposed to be–was he the spawn of the Devil, the reincarnation of the Devil or just some ordinary manifestation of pure, malevolent evil? Finally, Kramer comes in and they ask him what he thinks and he replies that Damien was just a sweet, misunderstood child. The new psychological horror film “Joshua” feels as if it could have been inspired by that conversation–it either tells the story of a couple of seemingly perfect parents who find themselves unable to cope with the realities of bringing a second child into the world or the story of a nine-year-old monster who so bitterly resents the new addition that he will go to any lengths to get things back to the way that he wants them to be.

As the film opens, well-to-do parents Brad and Abby Cairn (Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga) have just brought home their newborn daughter and, along with Brad’s overbearing mom (Celia Weston) and Abby’s brother (Dallas Roberts), are busy cooing over the new bundle of joy. It appears to be a bucolic scene but we gradually begin to pick up underlying angst in the room. For starters, we learn that after having her first child, Abby suffered a severe bout of post-partum depression and there is some worry that it could happen again. Then there is the reaction Joshua (Jacob Kogan), their nine-year-old first child, to this new addition. Not only is he feeling the usual vague resentment that any first-born goes through when a new addition to the family comes in to seemingly steal away the love and affection that was previously dedicated solely to him, he is also annoyed that the depression-related tension that existed when he was a baby (which he revisits via some incredibly grim home videos) is nowhere to be found. The final straw occurs when Joshua, an accomplished pianist, is asked to stop practicing his piece for an upcoming recital–ostensibly to “keep it quiet for the baby” but actually so that everyone can croon “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” to her–and he responds by throwing up in the middle of the room.

A couple of weeks later, cracks begin to show. After the baby lapses into a crying jag that goes on for days on end and Abby discovers that she is no longer able to breast-feed, it soon becomes apparent that Abby’s post-partum depression is beginning to return and Brad is presumably reacting to it in the same way that he did the first time around–by essentially ignoring the problem altogether and staying as far away from it as he can. However, other weird things begin to happen as well involving Joshua. He inexplicably begins to give away all of his toys to Goodwill and the one that he does keep, a simple teddy bear, is used by him to demonstrate the Egyptian principles of embalming. At his big recital, he discards his prepared piece for a deliberately cruddy rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” before collapsing on the stage. He begins to bond with his grandmother, a religious fundamentalist who disdains the lifestyle led by her son and his wife, and announces that he wants to be born again. Most of these things can sort of be explained away but when darker incidents begin to occur–such as the mysterious death of Brad’s beloved dog, a game of hide-and-seek that goes spectacularly wrong and much more–Brad and Abby are forced to contemplate the possibility that they have all been orchestrated by their own child.

Of course, the very idea that a nine-year-old child could behave in such a hateful and malicious fashion–especially towards his own parents–is unthinkable, right? After all, young children are so innocent and pure and angelic that they could never possibly even contemplate doing such things. Although people do have that idealized version of childhood purity (usually those without kids of their own), the truth of the matter is that little kids can be just as possessive and vindictive as anyone else and are just as willing to do whatever it takes to regain what they feel has been taken away from them unfairly. Co-writer/director George Ratliff (whose previous film was the creepily funny 2001 documentary “Hell House”) understands that and has crafted a pretty intelligent film that exploits that conceit without going to the over-the-top extremes as such other bad-seed films as “The Good Son” and, well, “The Bad Seed.”

Part of its success is that the calamities that befall Joshua’s family are, for the most part, the kinds of things that a nine-year-old child–granted, an extraordinarily intelligent and perceptive nine-year-old child–could plausibly put into motion. What also works is that while Ratliff makes sure that we know that Joshua is clearly a manipulative kid with some serious emotional issues (at one point, we see him offering a bum five bucks to let him throw a rock at the guy), he handles the material with enough ambiguity to allow us to think that his parents are so wrapped up in the idea of a perfect family unit that they are more willing to believe that their own child is evil that to admit that their parenting skills may be faulty. (Toward the end, however, the ambiguity begins to disappear and it is at that moment that the film begins to get a little less interesting.)

What ultimately saves “Joshua” from becoming either an overly mannered horror film about creepy kids doing creepy things–something like a collision between “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Birth”–or a tasteless exercise in sicko humor is the high level of performance from the lead actors. Sam Rockwell may seem like a strange choice to play an upwardly-mobile New Yorker but he winds up being an excellent choice as a father who realizes too late that ignoring the problems surrounding his family does not mean that they will go away. Even better is Vera Farmiga, whose portrayal of a mother increasingly unhinged by things that she can’t (or won’t) understand is yet another reminder that she is on the verge of becoming the next Great American Actress. The standout performance–indeed, the key to the entire film–is the work done by young Jacob Kogan in the title role. Yes, he is creepy as hell but that is the easy part–any soft-spoken child immaculately dressed in a suit is almost inherently unsettling–but he also pulls off the more difficult job of making us empathize with him even as he goes about his potentially monstrous ways. Like the version of Damien seen through Kramer’s eyes, his Joshua comes across in such a way that you can see him simply as a sadly misunderstood child while still flinching in fear every time he walks onto the screen.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=15713&reviewer=389
originally posted: 07/13/07 01:33:21
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2007 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

11/25/09 Abhishek Chakraborty No purpose to the boy's desire to destroy the family. See Orphan in 2 stars
3/25/09 Rose I thought the film was good because it had other possibilities, like the father as abuser. 4 stars
12/04/08 Shaun Wallner Well made. 4 stars
7/24/08 Simon What a hollow, redeeming-less waste of time. I hated the kid 1 stars
5/19/08 damalc a miserable movie about a miserable family 2 stars
4/12/08 Lea I HATED THIS FiLM! it was interesting at the beginning and ended terribly dumb!! 1 stars
3/07/08 Alba g i love this film , easy to the eyes ... very eerie 4 stars
10/23/07 William Goss Tale of troublesome child supplies more camp than creeps. 2 stars
1/16/07 Dale Summa great film. Eerie and compelling. 4 stars
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  06-Jul-2007 (R)
  DVD: 08-Jan-2008



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