Move over Damien. There's a new evil kid on the block. His name is Joshua, and he's the eponymous star of George Ratliff's creepy new psychological thriller.
By all modern measures of success, New Yorkers Brad and Abby Cairn (Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga) seem to have it all: a happy marriage, a spacious apartment on Manhattan's posh Upper East Side, and an angelic, preternaturally intelligent son named Joshua (Jacob Kogan).
But things aren't entirely as they seem in the Cairn household, as we soon learn when newborn daughter Lily joins the affluent brood. Turns out nine-year-old Joshua isn't nearly as angelic as his private school suit and neatly-combed hair would have us believe. Visibly jealous of the attention lavished on his baby sister, Joshua starts to show small glimpses of the devious little hellion that resides beneath the placid exterior. At an age where most kids are asking their parents about where babies come from or whether puppies go to heaven, Joshua is peppering his dad with such gems as "Do you ever feel weird about me, your weird son?" and "Do you love me? You know, you don't have to love me. That's not like a rule or something."
While such statements would cause some parents to immediately make plans to ship their child off to the looney bin, Brad and Abby don't seem too concerned, even as a series of unfortunate mishaps around the house soon appear to be not all that coincidental.
Mom Abby is the first to crack. Having refused to hire a nanny, she's left to raise the kids almost entirely on her own, while husband Brad spends long hours managing his Wall Street hedge fund. Plagued by Joshua's antics, Lily's incessant crying and the endless loud repairs on the penthouse upstairs, Abby, who already went through a nasty bout of post-partum depression when Joshua was born, proves increasingly unable to cope. Things only get worse from there for poor Abby and Brad, as their idyllic existence is steadily transformed into a nightmare of domestic dysfunction.
The success of Joshua lies in the myriad ways in which Ratliff's psychological thriller can be interpreted -- a fact likely owed to the filmmaker's roots in the documentary realm. The film resonated well with me for two reasons: 1) I'm terrified of having children, and 2) I enjoy watching yuppie Manhattanites suffer. Hence, I found Joshua simultaneously harrowing and hilarious.
Indeed, there's an unmistakable element of schadenfreude evident in Joshua, as the befuddled bourgeois couple struggles feebly to deal with the turmoil caused by their son's scheming. Joshua's got his parents beat at every turn, skillfully playing them against each other as he steadily dismantles the once-perfect family. When frazzled Abby finally begins to suspect that Joshua might be responsible for the various calamities that have befallen them, Brad dismisses the notion as a sign that mom's relapsing, and ultimately decides to institutionalize her. With mom out of the picture, hapless dad is easy pickings for Joshua.
But what's Joshua's ultimate motive? Again, Ratliff leaves the issue open to interpretation, providing us with a disturbingly ambiguous ending to chew on as we exit the Cineplex.
Well-acted and expertly photographed, Joshua is fine feature film debut for Ratliff, despite its occasionally plodding pace and some minor plot holes.