The latest in the creepy child genre, Joshua is not about a child born of the devil, but instead of a much more real and evil nature. Joshua does not succeed on originality, but instead on simple storytelling that slowly builds to a coldly calculated end game.
The movie stars Sam Rockwell as the loving dad who is trying to hold his family together. His wife, played by Vera Farmiga, is an emotional wreck, especially with the arrival of their new baby, who has suddenly begun to cry constantly. Their other son, Joshua (Jacob Kogan), is a bit odd and keeps to himself, but seems harmless enough. They know he's smart, and his teachers say that they are considering jumping him ahead by several grades. Still, there's something just not right... As time progresses, tensions strain as the baby continues to cry, Rockwell's religious mother tries to brainwash Joshua with her theology and the wife begins to see things. It's one thing after another, but is everything happening just a bunch of bad coincidences, or are they result of a much more sinister plot, planned and calculated to minute detail by one young boy?
I love movies like Joshua, when done right. There's something about creepy kids that just gets under your skin, especially when those creepy kids are also smarter than the adults around them. Most children can and do learn how to manipulate their parents and those around them to their own personal gain; it's fun to explore what would happen if a sociopathic kid were to take that manipulation to the extreme. One of my guilty pleasures is The Good Son, starring MacCauley Culkin and Elijah Wood; it's probably not considered the best of movies, but I enjoy it nonetheless. Of course, there are plenty of other examples with similar storylines. Sure, not all of these movies end up being very good (the new version of The Omen, anyone?), but thankfully, Joshua is a great little film in its own right. It's not particularly original, but its execution is solid and its ending will put a smile on your face, for good or bad.
Joshua has a very matter-of-fact presentation that works in its favor. The title character is cold and calculating, and director George Ratliff presents the movie in much the same way. The soundtrack is often subdued, the transitions somewhat abrupt, the scenes a snapshot from a year-long period of time as if they are doctor's notes psychoanalyzing the events in hindsight. It takes a while for anything substantial to happen, but there's always an underlying tension to each scene, foreshadowing of what's to come. Ratliff slowly and methodically leads up to the finish, which, I must say, is a great finish. It won't go down in history as one of the best twists ever, and in many ways, it isn't even a twist, but the revelation of the motive will make you grin.
My only complaint is that Joshua feels a bit too abridged at the beginning. While Ratliff develops the characters well enough, another five or ten minutes in the beginning would have helped to set the scene. I would have liked to see more on what the family was like before everything started going haywire; as is, it's hard to understand how Rockwell could ever put up with his wife, let alone have kids with her. Farmiga's character also comes off as quite unsympathetic; seeing her in a more stable light at first would have allowed us to relate with her on another level.
Joshua is not perfect, and it isn't anything original, but it is a good entry in the sub-genre and worth a viewing. The ending is subtle but particularly good.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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