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PARK CITY — He plays the piano rather than the horn here, but like his Biblical namesake, 9-year-old Joshua has the power to make things come tumbling down. With this superbly crafted psychological thriller, Fox Searchlight has made another savvy Sundance move. “Joshua” will win critical accolades and draw superbly through word-of-mouth.
With his affluent yuppie parents, brilliant and beatific Joshua (Jacob Kogan) leads a loving and enriched life among the upper denizens of Manhattan. In his preppie sports coat, he’s a poster-boy child, precocious and way ahead of his gifted classmates. His family is loving, and he’s even got a brand-new baby sister, who, admittedly, grabs attention because she incessantly cries.
It’s a charmed household, enlivened by doting grandparents and a charismatic and musically talented uncle. Yet, like any normal family, there are fissures of discontent: The grandparents’ evangelical-Christian proselytizing annoys his free-thinking parents, in particular his Jewish mother, who is further frazzled by her daughter’s nonstop bawling. On the paternal side, Dad is under big-time pressure at his brokerage firm.
Through an ever-darkening scope, filmmaker George Ratliff elegantly turns our perspective. In the best Hitchcockean sense, we now see the affluent prosperity and the benign richness of the family’s life through more skeptical and sinister eyes. Things seem to be going awry, way beyond the bounds of normal family dynamics.
Layered with smart red herrings and enlivened by rich and misleading visual textures, “Joshua” descends into a house of horror. So superbly calibrated is Ratliff’s direction of narrative misdirection that we’re never sure what is behind this gradual and unsparing descent: The picture-perfect family is horribly imploding.
“Joshua” is a first-rate horror-of-personality tale, one enlivened by the psychologically astute and brilliantly textured writing of Ratliff and David Gilbert. Under Ratliff’s superb modulation, the performances are exemplary, including Sam Rockwell as the courageous father and Vera Farmiga as the brittle wife and mother.
As the remarkable Joshua, Kogan recalls a patrician version of Lukas Haas in “Witness.” His cool aplomb and precocious manner are both endearing and daunting.
Technical contributions are marvelous, especially cinematographer Benoit Debie’s luminous compositions and evocative framings. Nico Muhly’s score is provocatively lush and moody, pitched high by Joshua’s own somber Beethoven piano playing and his deliriously assaultive rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”
Producer: Johnathon Dorfman
Director: George Ratliff
Screenwriters: David Gilbert, George Ratliff
Executive producers: Temple Fennell, Dan O’Meara
Director of photography: Benoit Debie
Editor: Jacob Craycroft
Music: Nico Muhly
Costume designer: Astrid Brucker
Casting: Patricia DiCerto
Brad Cairn: Sam Rockwell
Abby Cairn: Vera Farmiga
Hazel Cairn: Celia Weston
Ned Davidoff: Dallas Roberts
Chester Jenkins: Michael McKean
Joshua Cairn: Jacob Kogan
Running time — 105 minutes
MPAA rating: R
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Santa Barbara International Film Festival