By Matt Singer
[Photo: “Joshua,” Fox Searchlight, 2007]
Last week, I reviewed the Swiss film “Vitus,” about a child born with extraordinary intelligence and parents he cannot relate to. This week’s “Joshua” is about a very similar child with a very dissimilar temperament. And so “Vitus” is a light-hearted drama and this year’s Sundance hit “Joshua” is a black-hearted comedy. It is one of the enduring miracles of the movies that two can be made about much the same thing in totally different ways and both can be totally worthwhile.
Joshua (Jacob Kogan) is the older son of posh Manhattan couple Brad (Sam Rockwell) and Abby (Vera Farmiga). We don’t know what he was like before Brad and Abby had their second child, but since his little sister Lily was born, Joshua has been acting strangely. He never seems to sleep, wanders his parents’ gorgeous uptown apartment at all hours, and plays baroque music on the piano for hours on end (another amusing parallel with his phantom brother Vitus). The addition of a sibling is always a distressing time in a young child’s life. When my brother was born I got a “Knight Rider” pedal car to keep me happy and occupied while my parents took care of the baby. Unfortunately for Brad and Abby, New York City is no place for a pedal car.
At first, the only problem Brad sees with his strange little son is one of relatability. How, he wonders, did he produce a child like this, one so utterly different from him in so many ways? This is surely a thought that has crossed the minds of many parents (Lord only knows what Papa Singer thought of me growing up). But as little Lily spends night after night distressed, and Abby slowly unravels, Brad begins to fear there’s something seriously wrong with his firstborn.
The movie traffics in many clichés like the one that demands all wealthy families look absolutely perfect in the first act and downright monstrous by the end credits and it owes more than Farmiga’s haircut to Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby.” But director George Ratliff manages to put a fresh spin on the material with a unique perspective and a wicked sense of humor. We’ve seen plenty of evil children in movies before, but probably not one as mysterious and passive aggressive as Joshua. Youthful villains like these always look sweet on the outside, but they usually reveal their true colors to the audience, if not the characters around them, early on. Kogan, with Ratliff’s help, no doubt, plays most of the movie a bit closer to the vest. We don’t always know how much is Joshua’s doing and how much is in the minds of his disturbed parents. Was he the one who did that to his sister? Did he push that person down the stairs or did that person merely fall?
Ratliff’s best choice may have been casting Rockwell as Brad, and allowing the actor to push the material from more naturalistic horror into surreal dark comedy in the final act. So many of those devil spawn films devolve into outlandish, unintentional humor when their furious little tykes go off the deep end. When Brad finally realizes the depths of Joshua’s madness he doesn’t react with fear but with disgust; treating his child like a leper he has to care for, but doesn’t have to like. One sequence, in which he adds an extra lock to his door to keep Joshua at bay, is laugh out loud funny, something no movie like this has ever really been (at least, not on purpose). Though Rockwell doesn’t strike us as the high-flying investment banker Brad’s supposed to be early in the picture, he is very much the sort of guy who would lock his son out of his bedroom (interestingly, Rockwell’s other film at Sundance this year, David Gordon Greene’s “Snow Angels,” also cast him as the patriarch of a deeply troubled family, though, in that case, it was his character that caused its fractures).
The scary scenes could be a little scarier (except for that one game of hide-and-seek, which is terrifying) and Vera Farmiga could stand to be a little less Farmiga-ish (i.e. she needn’t act quite so loudly in every scene), but why quibble over a few minor flaws in one of the most effectively paranoid visions of New York City parenthood, well, ever?
“Joshua” opens in limited release on July 6th (official site).