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A thriller about the horrors of parenthood, Joshua takes its cues from the tradition of The Omen, Rosemary’s Baby, and Poltergeist. In a spacious apartment overlooking Central Park, a family celebrates the arrival of their second child. Brad and Abby Cairn (Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga) are squabbling with her mother-in-law (Celia Weston) while Uncle Ned (Dallas Roberts) plays a piano duet with nine-year-old Joshua (Jacob Cogan). But when Ned launches into “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” Joshua throws up all over the fancy Fifth Avenue carpet. Projectile vomiting: check.

You see, Joshua prefers the melancholy music of Béla Bartók, and unlike his scruffy, affable dad, he wears his hair in a neat part. To his mother’s distress, he is fond of embalming his teddy bear, and at night he creeps around corners and pops up behind the closing doors of the stainless-steel refrigerator. Spooky children staring down darkened hallways and pressing their noses against TV screens showing static: check.

To build its oppressive atmosphere of dread, Joshua, directed by George Ratliff and written by Ratliff and David Gilbert, relies on borrowed imagery, but snappy dialogue and memorable acting help to update genre cliches to the present. The film offers apt observations about the fears and anxieties of upper-class parents circa 2007, and especially Farmiga (wasted in The Departed) puts a contemporary face on the fearful mother beset by a screaming baby, meddling in-laws, ever-present construction noise, and the alarmingly intelligent first child who appears to threaten her entire adult existence.

I’ll gladly confess that Joshua had me in its grip for most of its running time. The film provides an involving experience while it lasts, but the payoff is less than satisfying. Without spoiling it, all I can say is that Joshua doesn’t resolve so much as simply end, and the story does not hold up to much retrospection. What must have looked like a clever idea on paper turns brittle on screen, and our willing suspension of disbelief goes unrewarded. Little Joshua will never haunt our dreams like Damien or the lost child from Don’t Look Now.

Joshua. George Ratliff, 2007. **

Joshua
is slated for release on July 6. Here’s the trailer: