“Joshua” is a creepy-little-kid suspenser decked out with sufficient class to lend it a certain distinction. Narrowly conceived and filled with narrative tropes familiar from many other movies, fiction feature debut by George Ratliff, who made his name with the Halloween docu “Hell House,” boasts enough in the way of sharp acting, as well as visual and musical smarts, to give the psychological twists and turns a respectable aesthetic context. Fox Searchlight Sundance pickup lacks the shocks, blood and guts to put it over with big-opening-weekend horror geeks, but a smart campaign should nevertheless generate solid returns in all markets.
“Do you ever feel weird about me, your weird son?” 9-year-old Joshua Cairn (Jacob Kogan) inquires of his father Brad (Sam Rockwell), a successful Wall Street trader. “You don’t have to love me.” Granted, Joshua might have reason to feel a bit put out at the moment, as his mother Abby (Vera Farmiga) has just brought a newborn sister to the family’s beautiful apartment overlooking Central Park.
But Joshua is, in fact, more than a bit weird. Impeccably polite and primly attired, the boy is so intellectually advanced his teacher advises moving him ahead a couple of years in school, and he’s also a piano prodigy, with a natural leaning toward pieces of modern dissonance. He also receives sympathetic attention from his uncle Ned (Dallas Roberts), a gay art and culture maven for whom Joshua feels a greater affinity than he does for his more immediate family.
With the passage of time marked by notations of the baby’s age in days, the mood at home becomes more unsettled. The baby cries incessantly, pushing the already edgy Abby to the brink of despair; at this point, her refusal to hire babysitters seems absurd. Joshua tosses out all his childhood toys, disembowels his favorite stuffed animal, develops a sudden interest in mummification, then pretends to grieve when the family dog mysteriously dies, as do the hamsters in his classroom.
Ratliff and co-scripter David Gilbert concoct further incidents — Granny suffers an unlikely accident, Abby is packed off to a nursing home — which collectively raise the central question of whether they are coincidental events or actually the product of a young mind more prodigiously evil than anyone could have imagined.
Pic holds audience attention reasonably well up to the climactic revelation thanks especially to the shrewd casting of, and performances from, Rockwell and screen debutant Kogan. Rockwell energizes the screen with his alertness; his Brad always seems to be thinking ahead as to what will please or interest his son and wife, and as the latter goes further off the deep end, ever more is required of him.
By contrast, Kogan’s Joshua is quietly poised, unflappable and enigmatic, to no one moreso than his parents, who can only wonder how they produced such a precocious egghead. With his abundant dark hair, steady gaze and defiant serenity, Kogan resembles the child actor Buddy Swan, who played the young Charles Foster Kane in “Citizen Kane,” and commands centerstage in every scene he’s in. He also clearly played the sometimes difficult piano pieces required.
Farmiga perhaps starts her portrait of hysteria at too high a register; her character is a pill from the outset, making one want her to go away whenever she’s around. With limited screen time, Roberts deftly sketches in an interesting character as Joshua’s aesthetically minded uncle.
Tech package is unusually good for this sort of picture, with three key collaborators having made notable contributions: production designer Rochelle Berliner, who created a warm, lived-in look for the apartment; cinematographer Benoit Debie (“Irreversible”), whose framing and sensitive color schemes are impeccable, and composer Nico Muhly, whose unusual, insinuating work significantly augments the drama and psychological shadings.