The Djinn

The Djinn (2021)

The Djinn first published by Sight and Sound, Nov 2021

Review: On “a quiet summer night, 1989…”, young Dylan Jacobs (Ezra Dewey) is woken in his bed by the sound of his mother Michelle (Tevy Poe) sobbing. As he heads down the hall, she turns, and the candle illuminating the kitchen in otherworldy orange is suddenly snuffed out. This is the ‘primal scene’ of The Djinn, which, later that same year, Dylan will repeatedly revisit and restage, whether in his imagination or through more supernatural means, having just moved into a new Burbank apartment with his father Michael (Rob Brownstein). For the mute, asthmatic boy has still not come to terms with the monstrously incomprehensible act that he witnessed that night, and is about to confront the legacy of grief and guilt which his (now deceased) mother has bequeathed him. 

Left to his own devices while golden-voiced Michael is (yes indeed) DJin’ on a night shift at the radio station, Dylan uses the ancient ‘Book of Shadows’ that he has found in the closet (that locus of repressed feelings and sublimated desires) to summon a wish-granting djinn, but fails first to read the small print. Now, in order to gain the hoped-for powers of speech, Dylan must survive a night of deadly hide and seek with a malicious shape-shifting spirit (John Erickson) that appropriates from the apartment’s newspapers, paintings and photographs the likenesses of dead folk – including, inevitably, Dylan’s mother. Here, as in their feature debut The Boy Behind The Door (2020) writer/directors David Charbonier and Justin Powell place a very young boy in mortal peril, tracing a cruel, harrowing rite of passage. 

Not only is the action of The Djinn confined almost entirely to the interiors of this modest apartment, but there is also a sense of being in Dylan’s own interior (head)space. For what we are watching is a disempowered preteen struggling to find his own voice in a world of frightening adults, and a (literally) scarred son trying to understand – and escape – the lethal despair of his mother. Recurring shots of Dylan waking up in bed not only reprise the opening primal scene, but also bring with them the possibility that Dylan’s nightmarish ordeals might be actual nightmares, inspired by pictures in this new home and the story of Pinocchio (also longing to become a complete boy, and pursuing wishes with consequences) that Michael had earlier read to him. On the other hand, perhaps there really is a Djinn who, once summoned, serves to amplify Dylan’s existing, irresolvable regret for “what’s done”.

The Djinn

Synopsis: Burbank, California, 1989. Still reeling from the suicide of his mother, mute, pre-adolescent Dylan summons a wish-granting, shape-shifting trickster djinn while his father Michael is away on night shift. Monstrous cat and mouse ensues, in the corridors and crawlspaces of both the apartment and Dylan’s harried psyche.

strap: David Charbonier and Justin Powell’s apartment-set rite of passage lets a young, grieving boy’s trauma out of the closet

Anton Bitel