[Screen It]

(2007) (Sam Rockwell, Jacob Kogan) (R)

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Suspense/Thriller: A father increasingly becomes convinced that his precocious 9-year-old son is intent on harming him, his wife, and their newborn.
For Brad (SAM ROCKWELL) and Abby Cairn (VERA FARMIGA), things couldn't seem better. They've just had their second child, Abby doesn't seem to be suffering from post-partum depression this time around, and their 9-year-old son Joshua (JACOB KOGAN) -- a precocious piano prodigy who's seemingly taking after Abby's brother Ned Davidoff (DALLAS ROBERTS) -- isn't showing any immediate signs of sibling jealousy.

Yet, Brad's mother, Hazel (CELIA WESTON), rocks the boat by expressing her displeasure and concern about neither of her grandkids being baptized, while the newborn's constant crying start to wear on Abby's nerves. That helps resurrect her dormant depression, thus putting pressure on Brad who tries to balance life at home and at work, where his boss, Chester Jenkins (MICHAEL McKEAN), isn't pleased with recent business losses.

That gets worse for Brad when he slowly but surely begins to suspect that Joshua isn't as happy or calm as his poker-faced expression might otherwise indicate. With Abby slipping further into depression, and odd things beginning and then escalating around the house, Brad must figure out what's occurring, discern whether Joshua is responsible, and then decide what to do about that.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
Ask any parent -- or any adult for that matter -- and they'll likely tell you that while children can be quite lovely and loving, they can also be quite a pain at times, seemingly intent on driving their siblings, parents, or any other non-child crazy via their attitudes and behavior.

That not only includes teens who arrive with their own matching set of emotional baggage, but also younger kids, the ones likely to have inspired the phrase "little devil" for their state of apparently being possessed by some sort of demons to inspire such antics.

Hollywood has long captured both age groups in any number of films, including both comedies and dramas. Yet, the younger set seems to have the stranglehold on the horror and suspense genres, at least when they're the source of such dread (compared with teens being the victims in boogeyman type flicks).

In fact, a friend of mine (with three kids of his own) says that nothing creeps him out like horror soundtracks that feature kid choirs doing that medium to high-pitched, ominous chanting thing often heard in such films. Of course, since such a choir would likely come off as silly rather than unnerving or frightening, filmmakers usually opt to have their child subjects portrayed as precocious and/or preternatural beings whose calmness belies something sinister lurking just beneath the surface.

From Patty McCormack in "The Bad Seed" to Harvey Stevens in "The Omen," such kids are creepy not only because we know they can be such little devils, but also due to our knowledge that they're not supposed to behave to such an extent where a parent's cautionary warning of "You'll be the death of me" is taken literally.

All of which brings us to the title character in "Joshua." As played by Jacob Kogan, the precocious 9-year-old -- with a penchant for some serious sounding piano playing -- rarely shows any emotion, thus belying what's churning inside his little, sinister mind.

Or so thinks his dad (Sam Rockwell) who eventually becomes certain his Steinway meets Egyptian mummification obsessed son has it out for him, his post-partum depression-suffering wife (Vera Farmiga), and/or the boy's newborn sibling who seems to have been the catalyst for the evil change.

Using onscreen titles to indicate the passage of time in days since the young girl's birth (as well, one would guess, the genesis of the second coming of Damien), writer/director George Ratliff and co-writer David Gilbert take their time, both in setting up the story and then letting the creepiness start to pervade things.

Much of that revolves around Kogan's portrayal of Joshua as a too-deadly-serious-for-his-age kid who's fascinated by the organ removal process of mummification and whose expression rarely shows any sign of pleasure, envy, anger, or the like. In fact, what amounts to a juvenile poker face hides the pressure cooker looming and building beneath that faux calm veneer, and it's our anticipation of when, where and how it's going to blow that keeps our attention.

For a while, that -- and the question of what's motivating and driving this kid to act the way he does (the Devil, an inherent predisposition for evil, or just too much sugar and exposure to violent video games) -- will likely hold most viewers' interest.

Yet, after a while, and despite family tensions rising along with the overall stakes, things slowly start to feel redundant as the story begins repeating its various plot tricks and thematic tics. I won't give away the ultimate explanation and/or result of such bad boy behavior, but it won't take a child psychologist to guess one, the other, or both, thus stealing some of the film's suspense and dramatic thunder.

Performances are solid across the board, with Rockwell near perfectly portraying the father who's pushed to the brink; Farmiga as the mother who thought she'd escape the PPD this second time around with motherhood but can't; Dallas Roberts as her brother who more casually accepts their family's predisposition for mental illness; and Celia Weston as the concerned but pushy mother-in-law who throws the seemingly obligatory religious angle into the mix (what with the "evil" theme that courses through the plot and title character).

Considering the eventual motivational revelation, I just wish the film were a little smarter and/or more creative in getting the chips to fall where they may. What's present works, but it's neither imaginative nor truly creepy or at least unnerving enough to make this stand out as a memorable addition to the "bad kid" movie sub-genre. "Joshua" rates as a 5.5 out of 10.

Reviewed June 25, 2007 / Posted July 13, 2007

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