Blame it on recessive genes or, perhaps, on an upbringing as soulless as the chic abode where this movie transpires. But either way, our offspring can befrightful little strangers, unrecognizable as biological progeny and hard to relate to, period. In presenting such domestic discomforts with intelligence and realism, “Joshua” makes for refreshing viewing, despite familiar ingredients, both as a comedy-drama about domestic rot and as a bad-seed genre thriller.
Nine-year-old Joshua (Jacob Kogan) is indeed horrid. A private-school piano prodigy with a preppie look and a habit of popping up spookily, he may also be a budding psycho. This becomes evident after his yuppie parents, stockbroker Brad (Sam Rockwell) and stay-at-home mom Abby (Vera Farmiga), bring a baby sister into the family’s spacious Manhattan apartment, prompting Joshua to feel ignored. Reacting sinisterly, he performs a discordant “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” at a school recital and demonstrates a morbid interest in mummification. Animals die. A supporting character has an “accident.” The baby cries incessantly.
Amid such developments, the walls crumble. Abby becomes clinically depressed. Brad, after initially holding things together, degenerates. Is Joshua merely a jealous sibling around whom awful coincidences occur, or is he orchestrating the family’s downfall?
Recalling everything from “The Omen” to “Rosemary’s Baby,” and bearing a European tinge — à la Claude Chabrol or Michael Haneke in its view of the bourgeois home as pathology city — the film doesn’t exude originality. It doesn’t unsettle your comfort zones like top-notch horror does.
But it’s an agreeable, on-target creeper with an appealingly grown-up mentality.
Writer-director George Ratliff, who previously made the documentary “Hell House,” captures real-life horror niftily, and he’s crafted a welcomely non-supernatural evil-kid chiller with delectably off-kilter moments. “Do you ever feel weird about me, your weird son?” Joshua asks Brad.
Ratliff and cowriter David Gilbert smartly suggest that perhaps the scariest thing about vile children is that there is nothing remotely unnatural about them. Compelling truths are touched on: the ability of kids to cunningly manipulate adults; the ineffectuality of purportedly enlightened child-rearing; how becoming a parent is a crapshoot that can yield a monster.
The cast, which also includes Dallas Roberts as Joshua’s composer uncle and Celia Weston as Joshua’s religious granny, fares so-so. Rockwell is strong. Farmiga is reduced to walking around looking wild-haired and harrowed. Newcomer Kogan is presented with too much monotone to allow Joshua to resonate beyond the boundaries of his demon-child function.
Starring Sam Rockwell, Vera Farmiga, Jacob Kogan, Dallas Roberts
Directed by George Ratliff
Written by David Gilbert, George Ratliff
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes