Is “The Strange Thing About the Johnsons” a Devilish Masterpiece?

The Strange Thing About the Johnsons is definitely a strange film. If you plan to watch it, prepare to feel as uncomfortable as you can imagine because you likely will. But it is also an important film.  

This short 2011 semi-horror film was written and directed by  by Ari Aster, but its popularity continues to grow. While it was Heredutary (2018) and Midsommar (2019) that made Ari famous, his first student project, “The Strange Thing About the Johnsons”, set the tone for his penchant for bizarre and unthinkable stories. 

Strange will be a good word to use in describing this short movie. In fact, how the idea for the movie came about is also bizarre. Aster claims he thought of it while discussing crazy things you couldn’t show in the film.  As a producer, he had to face the challenge of not being able to show the ‘unshowable’, and this is the first reason this work is a masterpiece. 

When submitting this movie as his thesis film at the American Film Institute, we can only imagine the look on the faces of his supervisors. 

Deviating from what the world considers normal is usually the first step towards creating exceptional art. 

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The Plot of The Strange Thing About the Johnsons

The strange thing about the Johnson is a 30 minutes long movie that opens up with the scene of a teenage boy, Isiah, masturbating in his room. Unfortunately for him, his father walks in on him but asks him not to be shy, that masturbating is a normal thing.  What’s not normal, however, is how the rest of the story unfolds. 

Fast forward 14 years, and it is the day of Isiah’s wedding. The boy is all grown up, with a wife of his own. What has also grown is the secret between father and son. 

The big secret is, spoiler alert, the son has been sexually abusing his father for years. After his wife catches the father and son in an inappropriate act on the son’s wedding day, Sidney, the father, decides to confess through his writing. He leaves a copy of a manuscript he wrote confessing to everything, Cocoon Man: Confessions by Sidney Johnson, under his wife’s pillow. But Isiah gets to the manuscript first and it leads to a conflict that eventually leads to more abuse and death.

It is easy to see why many viewers will find this movie to be controversial.

For one, it is extremely uncomfortable to watch for most people due to the unusual storyline. Unfortunately, we are all familiar with stories of child abuse even in the hands of parents. Those are uncomfortable to watch as well, even in a fictional film.  But a child sexually abusing a parent? Now, that’s a whole new territory that most of us have never even thought of.

Isiah and Sidney are not the only offenders in the story.  Joan, the mother, also plays a role in this twisted story as somebody who discovers the horrific truth but decides to ignore it. This is a familiar storyline when it comes to many child abuse stories. There might be a parent or a family member that discovers the abuse but decides to keep quiet instead of helping the abused. 

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The Strange Thing About the Johnsons and an African American Family 

Another thing that makes this film controversial is the fact that the filmmaker decided to make the Johnsons an African American family. Regarding this decision, Aster told Shadow and Act, “The color of the family isn’t important. We certainly assumed that casting black actors in a film that tackles such transgressive themes would create something of a stir, and it would be a lie to say that we weren’t hesitant, especially as many people were advising us against the decision.”

We know a lot of issues in African American households are pushed under the rug, including abuse and trauma. Even though this storyline is something that can take place in any color household, it can be used as a wakeup call for our community to openly discuss difficult topics like this.

The Taboo of The Strange Thing About the Johnsons

Aster began thinking about the plot for this film even before his first year at American Film Institute. He was discussing taboo topics with his friends and the story for The Strange Thing About the Johnsons started forming in his head.

We cringe watching this film because the topic is so taboo, probably the most taboo topic one can think of. Incest, however, is not new to even mainstream media. Shows like Game of Thrones have depicted it before. But the fact that a son is sexually abusing a father is one that is pretty much unheard of. 

So, what’s the takeaway from The Strange Thing About The Johnsons?

The point of this short film, from our take, is not just to shock the viewers. It is to shock us into thinking, what if this was happening to the family next door? Would we react to it differently because it flips the sexual abuse stories we are used to hearing about, because it’s a grown man, a father that’s being abused by his son?

It might take a little bit for some viewers to even catch the flip in the storyline. From the way the son talks to his father to the way the father simply freezes in place, this is a typical sexual abuse story. Except this time, the perpetrator and the victim are reversed.

Another point that makes this story interesting is that there are clues that suggest the father had a role in starting this incest relationship, only to have it turn him into a victim. If we knew more about what the father did, would we think of him less like a victim even though that’s what he ended up being at the end?

There are a lot of interesting things to consider in this brilliantly written and executed film.

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