For the second time in as many weeks, an American film has declared unconditional war on the nuclear family. George Ratliff’s Joshua, a creepy little exercise in the mold of The Bad Seed and The Omen, manages to upstage its worthy predecessors, however, by eschewing the supernatural altogether, keeping the so-called “evil” grounded and realistic. Instead of Satan’s hand or a divine bolt of justice, this is simply a misunderstood lad burdened with lousy parents and the simultaneous desire to ensure his proper upbringing, despite that fact. It’s an adaptation of the idea that a kid can’t choose his parents, with the delightful twist that even with accident of birth, it is still possible to set events in motion that will foster a more “appropriate” environment. For as bizarre and robotic as young Joshua (Jacob Kogan) is, he is simply a kid impatient with mediocrity, and one who has internalized the values of his surroundings that self-interest is paramount, even in the mind of a little boy. If Mommy and Daddy can’t cut it in the parenting arena, they must be replaced, even if the substitute is a prissy gay uncle. Especially if he is such a man. For as outraged as many will be that the ideal parent for Joshua is deemed a man prevented by law from getting married, he is, by all appearances, the most qualified individual to do the job. Not only is he cultured, well-spoken, and sophisticated, he holds a special bond with the lad, and one can envision the sort of prosperity and growth that would have been impossible with the old, unsuitable set from Joshua’s previous life.
Perhaps the film is not consciously advocating the rise of a gay male parenting class to wipe away the stain of affluent heterosexual couplings, but it is a bold stroke nonetheless to have this very sort remain standing. The movie reaches this conclusion through a series of nightmare scenarios, all of which portray child rearing as the worst possible turn of events to afflict the human animal. Or, failing that broad brush, it indicts this type of young family-to-be: an ambitious financial hotshot, Brad (Sam Rockwell), and his frantic wife Abby (Vera Farmiga), the very couple so envied in our national consciousness, yet least responsible when the chips are down. They are spirited, attractive, and seem to have cash oozing from their pores, as they inhabit an apartment in New York so vast it could host its own Super Bowl. They send young Joshua to an elite private school, own a piano, and seem to provide in all of the standard ways we’ve been told will lead to good health and productivity. Joshua is talented and intelligent, so it appears that his parents have done the right thing and followed all the proper manuals. And yet, as perceptive as he is, Joshua senses that he’s a burden, and has been ever since his arrival years ago. Joshua gathers this by asking his mother how he was as a baby (with the answer being vague and noncommittal), as well as finding an old tape of his early days where the mother does little but cry and throw shit at the befuddled father. The discovery of the tape is a hokey device, of course, but could just as easily be the late manifestation of feelings long held by the boy. Until now, it’s been only a suspicion; here’s the smoking gun he’s been waiting for.
Joshua’s question has been prompted by the arrival of a new baby, a sister he doesn’t envy in the traditional sense, but rather uses as a device to expose the parental anxieties and failings he knows have been dormant for too long. If this wee one is too easy early on, for example, then perhaps the damage will come later, when it can no longer be corrected. It becomes Joshua’s job, therefore, to save his sister as well as himself, and drive the parents over the line. He must, for if his sister is brought up by these people, she will suffer in ways too horrible to contemplate, as she’ll unlikely possess the same gifts and abilities to deal with the adversity. Expose the lie of the good parents now, and she’ll have a fighting chance for the future. After a few weeks of contentment and bliss, the baby becomes uncontrollable (thanks to Joshua), screaming and crying with a fury forceful enough to drive even the most seasoned adults over the edge. Day or night, she’s a babbling, blistering ball of tears and yelps; refusing to grant Brad and Abby even a moment’s peace. Brad has the office to keep him somewhat sane, but poor Abby is trapped in her own personal house of horrors, and becomes so intoxicated with self-pity and rage that she’s soon bedridden and heavily medicated. Postpartum depression? Perhaps, though the film is unwilling to grant so easy a diagnosis. As much as we want to dismiss the behavior as a medical problem, it’s quickly apparent that this is a woman who simply can’t handle the tidal wave of responsibility associated with parenthood. Joshua should have been a clue that she was ill-suited for the mom game, but typically, she pushed ahead and thought she’d give it another try. Maybe this time, she thinks; believing that Joshua was a lost cause from the start, rather than a direct result of her own doing.
Brad’s behavior is equally clueless, even if he avoids full-tilt insanity and hospitalization. On the surface, he’s a decent dad, but close scrutiny reveals a man lacking all understanding of what to say to any child, let alone one of his own. He speaks in clichés, catchphrases, and mindless shrugs, but never once in a tone that could be interpreted as helpful or nurturing. At work, he can toss around the expected jargon with the best of them, but around Joshua, he’d rather high-five and use “buddy” in lieu of genuine communication. There’s no real parenting here, at least not the sort that a bright boy like Joshua really needs, and Brad is simply filling in the gaps with whatever will pass the time until the boy goes to bed. About the time Joshua tells his father, “You don’t have to love me,” we sense that it’s exactly what he’s needed to hear all along, even if he instinctively recoils at the suggestion. No parent would ever utter something like that aloud, or even think it, largely because it violates the natural order. Parents protect and care for their children at all costs, and when they do not, it’s the most shocking crime imaginable. In fact, we don’t even entertain the smallest possibility that a parent might not love his or her child, even the face of appalling abuse. But as much as kids are stuck with the folks that brought them into the world, parents must accept their kids as they are, even if they are ugly, deformed, obnoxious, irritating, strange, or just plain hateful. Of course, kids become the sort of adults they’re taught to be, but throughout the process (even after), if a kid screws up, or acts contrary to the prevailing belief system of the home, parents wonder what in the hell went wrong. They look elsewhere, not in-house. But with the type of people Brad and Abby are (successful, but not very contemplative or learned), it’s very possible that Joshua doesn’t fit the bill, and instinct aside, they don’t have a clue what to do with him. So they cope, and follow the shopworn handbook.
But in order to reach the goal of a life with beloved Uncle Ned (Dallas Roberts), Joshua must drive his mother insane (and fiddle with her medication just in case), have his father put away (he constructs an airtight abuse case), and even hasten his grandmother’s death, given that sans parents, she’d be the likely caretaker. Joshua panders to his grandmother’s ridiculous religious principles, even saying that he’d like to be “born again,” though it’s clear this is meant solely to infuriate his Jewish mother and irreligious father. The boy is always twisting the knife in whatever way he can, either out of boredom, or a perverse need to prove his own superiority. And yet, he is leagues ahead of these buffoons, especially grandma, a woman bored to tears by Joshua’s museum lectures because they are “myths,” when all she can offer as a defense is some bullshit about Moses. That same day, the old bat falls down the museum stairs and dies, almost certainly by Joshua’s hand. He’s no monster, though; just another Leopold and Loeb serving notice that tolerance cripples the human experiment when it seeks to preserve the unworthy. This could be his preternatural way of separating the wheat from the chaff, but it might also be the lone avenue for a child given but a single tool throughout his young life: that he is in the way and unloved, and so beholden to no one save himself. It’s a reasonable defense mechanism — avenge to avoid the infliction of further pain — and who could blame him for needing meaningful involvement, rather than mere “tending”?
Regardless of the conclusion one reaches about the film, the things it gets right — the world-altering introduction of a child to a household, the warfare with in-laws, the seeming impossibility of family engagement — transcend the political or social implications. And let it be said: Joshua is a genuine horror film, not because it sends us reeling or sets the heart racing, but rather through its exploitation of accessible, everyday fears. As such, there isn’t a single frame that isn’t possible. But consider the other, equally thoughtful interpretation: that instead of joining Joshua in his quest for a better life, it presents his fate as the only possible course in a culture having surrendered its soul to feminism, homosexuality, and absentee parenting. Rather than indict the nuclear family, it laments its very passing; suggesting that in its place, passive fathers and hysterical, castrating mothers have turned their boys into vamping queers with piano, rather than athletics, on the brain. Young men are a dying breed, it suggests, and with fathers now consumed with work, their own egos, and assorted mistresses (even Brad flirts heavily at the office), they have left the job of parenting (and keeping the womenfolk in line) to effete lunatics and milquetoasts alike. Joshua, then, is what we get when family values take a back seat to social engineering and politically correct instruction, and men, now too ashamed to express their manhood, retreat to the shadows. Take the scene where Brad mourns his dead dog, crying hysterically in the kitchen. In comes Joshua, emulating his father down to the very last gesture. Is this an attempted connection, or is it mockery? A howl of protest from a young boy now rudderless on life’s sea? Depending on one’s view, then, the final image is either a triumphant repudiation or a death knell. In either case, those entrusted with life’s greatest responsibility long ago fell asleep on the job.