Surely You Kid
By Michael Koresky
Dir. George Ratliff, U.S., Fox Searchlight
Five signs your preadolescent son may be â€śdifferent,â€ť from George Ratliffâ€™s â€śInstruction Manual for Jittery New Parentsâ€ť:
1) He has begun to exhibit an antipathy toward sports, devoting his extracurricular time to the decidedly less masculine hobby of playing piano; 2) He prefers the company of his swishy, â€śalternatively life-styledâ€ť uncle to his more fun-loving, jocular dad; 3) He constantly fusses with his appearance, i.e., the tidiness of his hair, the cut of his dandyish school uniform; 4) He begins to show a predilection for art, enjoys museums and history, and appreciates aesthetics at an early age; 5) He views himself as an outcast, asks if his parents view him as â€śweird,â€ť and his thoughts often turn to death, and a loathing of the surrounding world.
Woe to the moms and dads who follows Ratliffâ€™s guide to parentingâ€”no sensitive coming-of-age drama, his Joshua is actually a histrionic horror film, opportunistically playing off of every single movie clichĂ© about creepy kids in the service of some preposterously conceived, sloppily executed takedown of insular, privileged white family life. Preadolescent Joshua (blank Jacob Logan), who embodies all of the tendencies described above, becomes a victim of fear and distrust by his parents. To deal with this aberration, this stranger who came directly from their very loins, moneyed Manhattanites Brad and Abby Cairn (Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga) keep themselves at a great distance, largely ignoring him following the birth of his baby sisterâ€”even as he begins to show signs of severe maladjustment. Though the movie tries to maintain careful ambiguity in its depiction of the child, and refuses to reveal if his parentsâ€™ suspicions that he may, in fact, be E-V-I-L, are all in their minds, Ratliff canâ€™t help but kowtow to cheap horror tactics. In other words, questions concerning whether Jacobâ€™s nefariousness is in part imagined by Abbyâ€™s severe postpartum depression or Bradâ€™s everydad desperation, are trumped by sinister lighting, an overly emotive, Shining-cribbed score (complete with string-ploinking shock cuts to time-disorienting title cards), and proclivity to have creepy Joshua pop up in shadowy hallways or from behind refrigerator doors, making his poor parents shriek.
Naturally, the dead animals pile up, and in one incredibly poorly mounted sequence, God-loving Granny fatally falls down the steps of the Brooklyn Museum of Art (incidentally, right at the moment that Brad arrives there after a risible cross-cutting mad dash via subway, all the way from the Upper East Side). Is Joshua merely a misunderstood victim in all of this, a scapegoat for his parentsâ€™ deficiencies and blind spots? Is it all a self-motivated ploy for him to get to live instead with his limp-wristed, martini-swilling uncle (Dallas Roberts, in a truly grotesque performance)? Or is he just a natural bornâ€¦well, you know. After a while, it matters little whether itâ€™s mommy and daddyâ€™s issue or Joshuaâ€™s; the battery of visual and aural techniques Ratliff puts his viewers through (which in no small measure seem to reference, in addition to the aforementioned The Shining, The Exorcist, The Bad Seed, The Omen, Rosemaryâ€™s Baby, and even Poltergeist) announce Joshua as one seriously demented tyke, and make the ambiguity seem all the more forced.
The performers provide varying levels of conspiracy with the silliness: Farmiga, her hair hatcheted to a fine mess reminiscent of Judy Davisâ€™s in The Ref, lurches full-breasted into her role with misguided zeal (her croaking â€śIâ€™m fine! Iâ€™m fine! Iâ€™m fineâ€ť into a mirror while holding a camcorder is a particularly low moment), while Rockwell seems driven to ironically distance himself in order to maintain dignity. He doesnâ€™t. Add to all this Michael McKeanâ€™s hilariously clipped performance as Bradâ€™s uncaring boss (McKeanâ€™s evident day-job duties consist of him huffing and puffing in and out of his Bradâ€™s office with bloated disinterest) and one of the least convincing child psychologists in film history, written as an authoritarian monster and played by Nancy Giles with an utter lack of empathy. Meanwhile, poor little Logan is directed to act like every single other dead-eyed cipher child ever forced on screen. Free of the burden of nuance, he merely has to walk into a room in his tailored suit, utter some creepy phrase without the slightest hint of emotion (â€śSomeone died in this apartmentâ€ť), and cue the strings.
Iâ€™ve read in interviews with Ratliff that heâ€™s embracing his audiencesâ€™ â€śnervous laughterâ€ťâ€¦well, he better, because there are bound to be a lot of titters; indeed, itâ€™s hard to keep a straight face during Joshua, so poorly does Ratliff establish space or tone. Ultimately, Ratliff hasnâ€™t done much more than add a particularly stupid entry to the â€ślittle boys in suits are scaryâ€ť subgenre, and this one comes with a thoroughly uninvestigated stench of homophobia. Iâ€™m not convinced it was Ratliffâ€™s intention to demonize its main character for his burgeoning differences (he prefers Bartok to baseball . . . horrors!), but then why, in its final scene, does little Joshua turn to his gay uncle, as they sit together doing a piano duet, after mommy and daddy are out of the picture, and say, â€śThis feels rightâ€ť? Okay, George, you finally creeped me out.