Pity the curse of the second-born. Those of us unlucky enough to have felt the wrath of an older sibling know the pain: The constant commentary on height and weight, the noogies and wedgies sustained, the boogers flicked in our general directions. But we've got nothing on the adorable baby girl who, through no fault of her own, turns the spotlight away from the creepy 10-year-old title character in Joshua. Unless your big brother combined his daily irritations with an uncanny aptitude for mummification and ritual sacrifice, chances are you'll walk out of the film comforted by the realization that your formative years could've been much, much worse.

Occupying a space somewhere between psychological drama and full-blown horror, the film is — for about two-thirds of its running time, at least — a terrifically queasy examination of what happens when parental neglect, pre-teen curiosity and the suffocating sanctimony of in-laws collide, just after the arrival of a newborn.

Director and co-writer George Ratliff, in one of many Kubrickian touches, even marks off the narrative with helpful title cards charting baby Lily's progress: "21 days old," "35 days old," and so on. The clinical growth chart might as well be ripped from the diary of Joshua (Jacob Kogan) himself, a glassy, distant little brainiac with an insistent fascination for his parents' reproductive lives. It's one thing to be jealous of a new sibling; it's another to tell your folks, in the cheeriest possible voice, "Do you think I'm weird?" or "You don't have to love me, you know."

To say Joshua's parents aren't well-equipped to respond to him is an understatement. Dad (Sam Rockwell) is a stressed-out Manhattan financial trader trying to live down his own fears of inadequacy at work, while spunky, opinionated Mom (Vera Farmiga) is desperate to live down the social status they've worked so hard to attain. "I hate these people. Are we these people?" she asks, forcing small-talk with pompous parents at her son's private-school recital. Still, keeping up appearances is the utmost concern, and she's willing to take credit for Joshua's brilliance even as the boy gravitates more toward the born-again embrace of her judgmental mother-in-law (Celia Weston). Religion, money, influence: It's enough to drive a mother insane, especially one who suffers from depression of the Brooke Shields variety.

For a good hour or so, Joshua manages to pull off the sort of emotional high-wire act seen only in the very best thrillers: It amps up innate, universal fears — "Am I raising my children right? Will they turn on me?" — into the stuff of bone-chilling suspense. For all its similarities to other movies in the kid-thriller canon, from The Bad Seed to Rosemary's Baby to The Omen series, the movie keeps the focus on the characters and refrains from spelling out its motives — that us, until its final act. Mom recedes into the background and more conventional thriller set pieces — including the hoary old baby-carriage-and-staircase routine – come into play. But the plot hiccups aren't enough to erase the memory of Farmiga's jittery, tremulous performance. Whether she's disaffectedly tugging on a breast pump or denying Joshua's religious conversion "because his mom's a big fat Jew," this is the work of a fearless actress, and it's even more of a revelation if you're familiar only with her confident, self-assured presence in The Departed last year. Playing Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon off one another is a cake walk compared to taking care of someone like Joshua.

Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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