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Film / The Strange Thing About the Johnsons

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A dark secret lies within this family.

"I love you, Dad… but this makes it hard."

The Strange Thing About the Johnsons is a darkly satirical dramatic short film written and directed by Ari Aster as his thesis film while studying at the American Film Institute's graduate school.

The film focuses on the eponymous Johnson family: Sidney, a successful poet; Joan, his wife; and Isaiah, his charismatic son. Not much time passes before the film reveals what exactly the "strange thing" about this family is, at which point things quickly go downhill.

It premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival in January of 2011 but gained infinitely more attention following its leaking online in November of that year. Out of the sheer advent of public curiosity towards the aforementioned "strange thing", the film went viral, receiving a polarized mix of reactions from acclaim to disgust.

Undoubtedly one of if not the most popular short of his, it alongside Munchausen (2013) helped Aster get the attention of A24, where his career continued with feature films.


As the film's entire plot hangs on the Wham Shot in its opening, all spoilers are unmarked. It is strongly advised that you watch the short first, then come back here.

The Strange Thing About the Johnsons provides examples of:

  • Abusive Offspring: Isaiah regularly sexually abuses his own father, Sidney. However, Isaiah's Hannibal Lecture towards the end implies that it was Sidney who started the abuse in the first place, but given how sociopathic Isaiah is, it's ambiguous whether or not that's true.
  • Big Bad: Depending on who you ask, Isaiah and Sidney could equally be this. Initially, the audience is led to believe that Isaiah is the villain, due to his sexual abuse of his father, but his Hannibal Lecture to him near the end implies that Sidney abused him first, and it snowballed from there. Considering there is no indication of abuse from the father's end, the possibility that Isaiah is simply Victim-Blaming him is still open.
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  • Big "NO!": Sidney screams this when Isaiah busts open the bathroom door while he is taking a bath.
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: Quite the understatement; one of the squickiest examples of this in recent memory.
  • Book Burning: A variant involving the paper-only manuscript of Sidney's memoir detailing Isaiah's abuse. He leaves it on Joan's bed, but Isaiah finds it and vows to burn it; he then takes another copy he had hidden beneath the floorboards, which actually does get burned at the end.
  • Broken Tears: Joan after killing Isaiah.
  • Bystander Syndrome: Some of the film's most potent Fridge Horror lies in Joan, who on multiple occasions was made fully aware of Isaiah's abusing Sidney, but chose not to do anything, likely prolonging the abuse. Even worse is that in her final conversation with Isaiah, she reveals that she'd seen the signs of his abuse in Sidney since it began.
  • Caught with Your Pants Down: The film's opening scene, in which Sidney walks in on Isaiah masturbating to a picture and gives him a speech that it's a natural thing to do. We then find out that the picture was of Sidney.
  • Creator Cameo: Ari Aster cameos as Dr. Storm Rickles, Ph.D., who made the "words of encouragement" tape that Sidney is listening to in the bathtub when Isaiah rapes him.
  • Deconstructive Parody: According to Ari Aster, he chose the most socially abhorrent premise he could think of for his senior thesis film to stand in stark contrast to the conventional, "politically correct", and Oscar Bait-y shorts made by AFI's graduating students.
  • Depraved Bisexual: Isaiah appears to have a loving relationship with his wife. However, at one point while he's making out with her, he glares intensely at Sidney, hinting at his larger preference for men, or at least his father.
  • Driven to Suicide: Possibly; it's not made explicitly clear if Sidney's death via car was accidental or intentional.
  • Downer Ending: Sidney dies after getting hit by a car. After his funeral, Joan confronts Isaiah, demanding to know the truth, and she is forced to kill him in self-defense when he tries to murder her. Afterward, she burns Sidney's memoir, leaving her as the only one who knows of what her son did to his father as well as the fact that her ignorance of said abuse contributed in part to both of their deaths.
  • Extreme Doormat: Sidney is this for his son, as he makes little to no effort to stand up to his son. Combine this with Pushover Parents.
  • Hannibal Lecture: Isaiah gives one to Sidney in a last-ditch effort to stop him from publishing the manuscript, which reveals that Sidney (possibly) could've been responsible for Isaiah's compulsions by sexually abusing and manipulating him first, and it's dishonest for him to assume victimhood.
  • Happily Married: To Isaiah's chagrin, Joan and Sidney are happily married to each other throughout the movie.
  • Hate Sink: Isaiah Johnson is a violent abuser who sexually abused his father for 14 years and later tried to kill his mother after deflecting the blame of his father's death from him.
  • Idiot Ball: If Sidney was a little more careful with the manuscript to his memoir, the movie would have taken an entirely different path. Instead, he treats it as if he wants Isaiah to read it. With his first copy, he hides it under a pillow but not entirely so that it could be noticed from a couple yards away and lets Isaiah into the room where it is being hidden, albeit reluctantly. With his second copy, he carries it out in the open despite the fact he knows Isaiah is currently in the same house he's in and was already caught by him with the first copy.
  • Kill It with Fire: Subverted; Isaiah attempts to shove Joan's head into a fireplace, but she gets ahold of the nearby fire iron and gets the upper hand of the fight.
  • Leave the Camera Running: After Joan is forced to kill Isaiah, the camera lingers on a static shot of her sobbing in despair for quite some time, allowing the emotional weight of the situation to sit in.
  • Look Both Ways: Justified; Sidney is so torn up by the aforementioned Hannibal Lecture he runs off in a daze and is hit by a van before he can get out of the way. One could also interpret this as a suicide, which is perfectly understandable given the circumstances.
  • Noodle Incident:
    • When Isaiah finds that Sidney's locked the door as he's taking a bath, he states that Sidney "knows how [he feels] about locked doors."
    • When Joan confronts Isaiah at the end, she alludes to something that he did on his prom night that had Sidney crying when he drove him home, which reveals just how long this has been going on...
  • Offing the Offspring: Joan kills Isaiah in the end, although it's purely out of self-defense and brings her zero satisfaction.
  • Poor Communication Kills: Sidney does not tell anyone what his son is doing to him in fear of his reputation. He finally decides to confess it in a memoir he plans to publish, but before he can, he gets hit by a car and is killed on impact.
  • Parental Incest: A one-sided, forced, incestuous relationship between Isaiah and his dad. A rare example where the child is the abuser and the parent is the victim.
  • Pushover Parents: Neither Sidney nor Joan seem to attempt to punish Isaiah or have him arrested for his actions.
  • Rape Discretion Shot: The movie does this twice.
    • The first is when Isaiah is unbuckling Sidney's pants in order to personally pleasure him. The camera pans to Sidney's uncomfortable face right before the underwear comes down.
    • The second is when Isaiah rapes Sidney in the bathtub. Right after Isaiah kicks the door down, the film cuts to Joan watching TV and trying to drown out Sidney's cries by increasing the volume.
  • Refuge in Audacity: Somewhat a meta-example where nobody would imagine this kind of short film would come right out of American Film Institute.
  • Riddle for the Ages: Who really started the abusive incestuous relationship? The film doesn't really delve into the details. Isaiah claims Sidney started it and Sidney's manuscript implies that he's responsible to some degree, but considering Isaiah's position as the abuser and the possibility of Victim-Blaming, the truth is much murkier than that.
  • Self-Made Orphan: Not only did Isaiah accidentally get his dad killed, but he tried to shove his mother's face into a fireplace after she attacked him.
  • The Sociopath: In public, Isaiah is a charming, successful man with a promising marriage. In private, he is a cold-hearted rapist who has been treating his father as his personal plaything for years and is unwilling to admit that it's his fault for doing so.
  • Springtime for Hitler: Ari Aster stated that, after seeing past works made by fellow alums, he chose to make the worst thing he could make at American Film Institute, which is one of the most respected film schools in the United States but also an industry school that encourages their students to make more safe and conventional movies. Little did he know that many film critics would embrace it more for its genuine merits than its shock values.
  • Teens Are Monsters: Isaiah, in spades. At his core, he's a sociopath and a rapist who's been manipulating his own father for years.
  • Thousand-Yard Stare: Joan, at Sidney's funeral.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Isaiah has a massive one after Sidney is killed.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: Isaiah is a very successful person and is married to boot. Fair to say the memoir is the only thing that would unravel his horrible secret.
  • Wham Line:
    • Isaiah's Hannibal Lecture to Sidney starts off with some regular victim-blaming (accusing Sidney of being complicit with his actions), but then he begins to imply that he's not as innocent as we've come to expect.
      "I didn't ask for this! This is your thing, something you started."
    • Later, he says something even more incriminating:
      "You are not just my father; you're my friend. You're my best friend, and maybe we can just agree that that's a beautiful thing, and not something to be perverted and corrupted and mutilated by your warped and confused conscience."
  • Wham Shot: One that sets the tone of the film hard — the photo Isaiah was masturbating to in the opening was that of his dad.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Isaiah's wife is only seen a few times and is unseen the rest of the film.
  • Within Arm's Reach: Isaiah tries to kill his mother Joan by shoving her head into the fireplace. As he's doing so, she manages to grab the fire poker and bludgeons him to death with it.
  • Yandere: Isaiah is one to his own father, being jealous of his own mother and willing to cause harm to her.
  • You Monster!: Joan calls her son out for inadvertently killing his dad, citing the words of this trope verbatim.