The age of the superchild — a sitting target for our touching American belief in infinite human perfectibility via hyperparenting and educational engineering — has surely produced enough narcissistic little monsters to perk up the fatigued bad-seed movie. Heaven preserve us from an upcoming remake of the 1956 original by Hostel: Part II’s Eli Roth, who with his customary finesse promises us a kid who loves to kill, kill, kill. Instead, say hello to Joshua, the titular psycho in George Ratliff’s delicately arty, robustly nasty horror movie about a family rotting to its haute-bourgeois core.
Whatever ails the upscale modern child, pumped high on self-esteem by parents and teachers bent on making their cosseted darlings feel good about themselves no matter what, it’s not neglect. Or at least it oughtn’t to be, in swell little families-in-progress like that of Brad and Abby Cairn (Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga), a hedge-fund manager and his stay-at-home wife who live the urban good life in a fancy New York apartment with their young son (newcomer Jacob Kogan). A high-achieving little prig much given to tailored blazers and blank stares, Joshua seems just a tad uneasy about the arrival of his exceedingly pink baby sister. Piling up domestic scenery with leisurely detail, Joshua innocently announces itself as the sensitive, naturalistic family drama beloved of Sundance audiences. Until, that is, it starts playing to the Slamdance crowd with noises off upstairs, an inconsolably crying baby and Joshua himself, a master of the mixed message who likes to give away toys to the poor, tear the stuffing out of his panda and creep up behind startled relatives.
Once you build up a history with this crew, you’ll be inclined to sympathize. Up-to-the-minute pathologies seep out of the Cairn family closet as we meet Brad’s overly solicitous mother (the incomparable Celia Weston), who bristles with born-again passive aggression, and Abby’s gay brother, Ned, played with such cunning stealth by Dallas Roberts that you can’t tell whether his penchant for kissing his sister on the lips and his devotion to his nephew make him Mr. Sensitive, or the creep you should be putting at the head of your perp list. Then there’s Mom and Pop, whose not terribly latent unhappiness escalates in direct proportion to the progression of their bad hair — his stands on end, while her modish shag grows tuftier by the scene — and in contrast to Joshua’s perpetually smooth and shining thatch. Brad is a weakling, fitfully kind to his son but distracted by work and his iPod, while Abby is grimly determined not to repeat her earlier postpartum depression — which is Ratliff’s charmingly postmodern way of calling her a shrill bitch without getting shit from the feminists. Hormones or not, it has to be said that this abrasive ball-buster, astutely played against her fragile physique by Farmiga, comes as a relief from the blandly supportive blond helpmeets who prop up most domestic dramas. And though the rote mother-blame of the horror movie gets a little tedious, Joshua gets one thing right: Slathered in how-to parenting books and post-feminist anxiety about doing right by the kids, the modern mother has forgotten how to do the one thing that makes her kids blossom and flourish — enjoy them.
For all her big mouth, Abby is no match for the son she can barely bring herself to hug. We find the bookish Joshua prophetically absorbed in a copy of Alice in Wonderland, and in due course, the family finds itself hurtling down one black rabbit hole after another, until Mom regresses, Dad flips out, and poor, loving, meddlesome Grandma finds herself the unwitting star of a scene that turns the Brooklyn Museum of Art into the Odessa steps. Part of the fun of Joshua is the skill with which Ratliff juggles horror and realism, feeding one into the other until we become part of the unraveling of the Cairns’ perfect life. Tapping tantalizingly into the all-or-nothing extremity of modern parenting, with its roller-coaster rushes ?between attention and neglect, Ratliff and co-screenwriter David Gilbert put intelligence, if not exactly heart, ?back into a subgenre that has run badly to seed.
JOSHUA | Directed by GEORGE RATLIFF | Written by DAVID GILBERT and RATLIFF | Produced by JOHNATHAN DORFMAN | Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures | ArcLight, AMC Century 15 and NuWilshire