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The Strange Thing
About the Johnsons

Promotional poster

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Directed byAri Aster
Written byAri Aster
Produced byAlejandro De Leon
  • Billy Mayo
  • Brandon Greenhouse
  • Angela Bullock
CinematographyPawel Pogorzelski
Edited byBrady Hallongren
Music byBrendan Eder

Release date

  • January 22, 2011

Running time

29 minutes
CountryUnited States

The Strange Thing About the Johnsons is a 2011 American psychological drama short film written and directed by Ari Aster.[1][2] The film stars Billy Mayo, Brandon Greenhouse, and Angela Bullock as members of a suburban family in which the father is trapped in an incestuous relationship with his abusive son.

The short was Aster's thesis film while studying at the AFI Conservatory,[3] and later screened at film festivals in 2011, premiering at the Slamdance Film Festival in Utah on January 22 before it leaked online in November and went viral. Aster conceived the story while discussing taboos with his friends, including Greenhouse, before his first year at AFI.[4] He worked on the production with fellow students from the school.

The Strange Thing About the Johnsons received polarized reviews from both critics and audiences. Many were divided on the film's controversial themes, although Mayo and Bullock received widespread acclaim for their performances.


In 1995, acclaimed poet Sidney Johnson accidentally interrupts his 12-year-old son Isaiah masturbating. He apologizes and reassures Isaiah that the act is natural, unaware that Isaiah was masturbating to tướng a photograph of Sidney as a young man.

In 2009, during Isaiah's wedding, Joan (Sidney's wife and Isaiah's mother) discovers Isaiah secretly giving a distressed Sidney a blowjob. Despite being disturbed, Joan tries regaining her composure. That night, while Joan is in the shower, Sidney leaves a typed memoir underneath Joan's pillow called Cocoon Man: Confessions by Sidney Johnson. The memoir chronicles Sidney's experience of being incestuously abused by his son. Isaiah discovers it and tells him not to tướng print any more copies. After a New Year's Eve tiệc nhỏ, Isaiah's erratic behavior begins to tướng show as he lashes out at his wife, Marianne.

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Some time later, while Sidney is listening to tướng a self-help tape in the bath, Isaiah breaks down the locked door and rapes him. Joan hears Sidney's screams but distracts herself from it. The next day, Sidney attempts to tướng leave the house with a secret copy of Cocoon Man but is led into another confrontation with Isaiah, who gaslights him. Sidney runs into the street in an attempt to tướng escape, but is killed by an oncoming nài.

After Sidney's funeral, Joan decides to tướng confront Isaiah, speculating that the abuse began 10 years ago during his prom night as she remembers Sidney crying for hours after it. Isaiah tells Joan that she is delusional and she calls him Sidney's killer, causing him to tướng lash out and tell Joan that he loved Sidney "better phàn nàn [she] ever did". Isaiah attempts to tướng strangle Joan, only for her to tướng stab him with a knife. He then tries forcing her head into the fireplace, but she stabs him to tướng death with a fire iron before throwing the copy of Cocoon Man into the fire.


  • Billy Mayo as Sidney Johnson
  • Brandon Greenhouse as Isaiah Johnson
    • Carlon Jeffery as Young Isaiah
  • Angela Bullock as Joan Johnson
  • Stanley Bennett Clay as Howard
  • Connie Jackson as Grace
  • Danièle Watts as Marianne


The team began work on the project during Aster's time at the American Film Institute's graduate school, AFI Conservatory, for his thesis film. The idea behind the short had arisen from a discussion with some friends about taboo topics, during the summer preceding his first year at AFI. Brandon Greenhouse, who plays Isaiah, had previously worked on projects with Aster and was there since conception.[4]

We were talking about topics that are too taboo to tướng be explored, and ví we arrived at taboos that weren't even taboos because they were ví unfathomable, and the most popular was that of a son molesting his father.

The short was shot on 35mm film.[5] He described the script as being "a bit of an uphill battle to tướng make it there politically",[3] stating:

I was at AFI, which is a kind of industry school. They're very Hollywood-oriented and they want to tướng train you to tướng become a Hollywood filmmaker, and the films they show the incoming fellows are very politically correct ... Oscar movies. And I just thought, what's the worst thing I can make at AFI? ... To ask, what can't I do? And why can't I bởi it? Oh, a son raping his dad, we should make that a movie. And then to tướng figure out what makes that palatable and how to tướng make that work.[6]

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After the short film was released online, it went viral, garnering a polarized reaction due to tướng its controversial themes.[7][4] Ivan Kander of the trang web Short of the Week wrote that the comments on YouTube had "everything from effusive acclaim to tướng disgusted vitriol. In terms of the mạng internet, that means it's a hit."[5]

The film also garnered controversy for its portrayal of an African American family by a Jewish filmmaker.[7] Director Ari Aster stated that "the color of the family isn't important. We certainly assumed that casting đen giòn actors in a film that tackles such transgressive themes would create something of a stir, and it would be a lie to tướng say that we weren't hesitant, especially as many people were advising us against the decision."[4]

As an African American incest and child sexual abuse survivor, Malcolm Harris of The Huffington Post wrote that Billy Mayo's performance was "brilliant" and that "we should be applauding the fact that someone has finally shown true courage in proposing the question, 'What If? What if these strange events were happening behind the closed doors of the Smiths, the Rosenbergs, the Mortimers, the Herreras? What if these strange things were happening to tướng me?'"[7]


  1. ^ "Fantastic Fest 2013 Short Film Lineup Announced". Daily Dead. September 4, 2013. Retrieved February 18, 2017.
  2. ^ "For Discussion: The Strange Thing About The Johnsons Asks & Answers "TABOO" Question… [FULL VIDEO]". Straight From The A. December 2, 2011. Retrieved February 18, 2017.
  3. ^ a b "Complicated Grief: Ari Aster on Hereditary's Family Nightmare". Filmmaker. June 11, 2018. Retrieved September 1, 2018.
  4. ^ a b c d Emmanuel Akitobi (November 28, 2011). "The Strange Thing About The Johnsons Director Ari Aster Talks To Shadow & Act About His Provocative & Controversial Short Film". IndieWire. Retrieved February 18, 2017.
  5. ^ a b Ivan Kander (August 10, 2012). "The Strange Thing About the Johnsons". Short of the Week. Retrieved February 18, 2017.
  6. ^ "Interview: Ari Aster". May 1, 2018. Retrieved September 1, 2018.
  7. ^ a b c Malcolm Harris (December 19, 2011). "What's So Strange About the Johnsons?". HuffPost. Retrieved February 18, 2017.

External links[edit]

  • The Strange Thing About the Johnsons at IMDb