Director: Jessica Hausner | 1h 45mins | Drama, Horror, Thriller
Plant breeder Alice (Emily Beecham) and co-worker Chris (Ben Whishaw) dedicate their newest genetically modified ‘happy’ flower to her teenage son Joe (Kit Connor). Just before it’s announced to the public, Alice starts to wonder whether her unapproved techniques have caused Little Joe to have more influence than just your happiness.
Taking a somewhat unique approach to her newest feature, director/co-writer Jessica Hausner created an unnerving and suspenseful horror-esque drama. It’s hard to pin point exactly what genre Little Joe falls under, easily blending aspect of horror, thriller and family drama into an amalgamation of the strangest parts of each.
Emily Beecham plays the introverted Alice excellently, creating vivid red plants in a sterile white lab with other breeders. Her newest variety creates happiness in it’s owner by activating a hormone similar to one mothers release to their children through the plants pollen, which aggressively emits, likely due to Alice making the plant infertile. Other breeders have their reservations about how she created the plant so successfully and the effect it could be having on their own developments, whilst Chris (Whishaw bringing a performance to match Beecham’s, but with a air or eeriness) is forever in her corner, an odd romance of sorts brewing only on his side.
Alice names her new success after her son Joe just before Little Joe heads to a flower fair, though it has sweet intentions it does come across inappropriately – Joe’s earliest scenes are waiting in one of the offices at the lab as Alice runs late at work. We’re introduced to the idea that she’s using Little Joe to circumvent genuine issues she has with Joe growing up and not needing his mother as much as she needs him – the plant needs constant care, to be watered regularly, to be spoken too and kept at the right warm temperature. Little Joe uses this narrative to explore the idea of happiness – is it true happiness if you lose part of yourself, or does it not matter as long as you’re happy?
The performances all seem slightly off beat, and once exposed to the pollen everyone exudes a woodenness amplifying the strange tone. For some, this could be off-putting as the stiff behaviour is very unnatural, but it’s certainly Hausner’s intention. They aren’t ‘bad’ performances so it isn’t distracting, but it is just enough to add another layer of unsettling tension as more and more of those around Alice become more and more unlike themselves.
There’s a certain familiarity to the story as echoes of Invasion of The Body Snatchers resonates throughout.
All this is mixed with the idea that Little Joe could be changing people – the dog of one of the breeders that spends it’s time in the lab becomes unfriendly, uttering the phrase “that’s not my dog” multiple times. There’s a certain familiarity to the story as echoes of Invasion of The Body Snatchers resonates throughout, though maybe sometimes a bit heavier than Hausner likely intended. Much like the classic story the changes to the behaviour of those ‘infected’ are so minor, to the point of Alice expressing her paranoia during therapy about her own son, the anticipation of how things could go horribly wrong constantly rises to a near unbearable level.
Though thematically and narratively there are a few too many comparisons to be drawn, visually Little Joe is a masterstroke for Hausner. The lab is beautifully white and sterile, with certain areas taken over by bold purples and reds. The choice of green lab coats is an interesting one also, whether that is an accurate aesthetic of this role is up for debate but by not having the typical white look it adds another off kilter look. Cinematographer Martin Gschlacht furthers the unnerving tone by taking unnecessarily long takes – Joe and Alice sitting at dinner the camera pushes up the hallway and in between them so we’re moved past the conversation and stare at the wall for a few seconds before cutting away.
Little Joe will definitely not be a film for everyone, the camerawork and performances could put some off, but for those that do appreciate it will be able to enjoy a flawed but fairly unique exploration of happiness and the sense of other.