Tom is a janitor at a suburban Catholic high school. He’s lonely, shy and downtrodden: disrespected by the students, talked down to by his co-workers and work superiors and increasingly worried about his job.
When a poor refugee student from Africa arrives and takes a part-time job helping out at the school, Tom fears the loss of his job and authority. The student becomes the target of his long-simmering ire, to disastrous results.
Writer-director Philip Aceto’s short drama is a a trenchant examination of power, entitlement and violence, one that takes the perspective of the aggressor who takes his rage and anger over his own marginalization out on the poor, non-white people in his community.
The small private school is clearly invoked as a microcosm for larger American society, and long sweeping shots combined with hand-held camerawork clearly lay out the community of the school, along Tom’s place in it. Many elements exist uneasily within the space: the entitled, often obnoxious students, the harried workers and teachers — and Tom at the margins, cleaning up after everyone, forgotten by most or treated as a joke or punching bag when noticed.
Thanks to a powerful performance by actor Michael Rose as Tom, we slowly feel the build-up of indignities Tom suffers, whether it’s from the taunts from the students he cleans up after or the biting tone of impatience that his female supervisor (who he secretly pines after) lobs at him when he worries about his overtime. Rose’s performance as Tom is economical and laconic in its lack of words, but the effort he makes to stay silent and compliant speaks volumes about his growing resentment and frustration.
When he is introduced to a poor refugee student, there’s an immediate frisson of dislike that comes from Tom — one that grows as he notices the student cheerfully does his job and develops a rapport with the others in the school community. The editing is masterful, combining intimate camerawork focused on Tom with cutaways to the refugee student’s introduction into the school. These strands are knitted together to build up Tom’s growing insecurity, which boils over in a small yet shocking act of rage and violence.
“Open House” covers potentially explosive political terrain by examining how entitlement, masculinity and aggression can be directed against the most vulnerable members of a community. But by taking us through the storytelling through Tom’s perspective, it offers an uncomfortable yet provocative understanding of the psychological roots of hate.
The film performs a remarkable balancing act: it never excuses Tom’s actions that are rooted in bigotry and entitlement, but it does allow us to experience the alienation he feels as he’s treated with a lack of dignity and sensitivity. There are no easy answers in this story, or to the acts of aggression overall.
In the end, we’re left with the dark irony of the film’s title, and about the promise vs. reality of America: a place supposedly open to all with its potentiality of opportunity, but hostile to those who need it the most.