DIRECTOR: JESSICA HAUSNER | SCREENPLAY: JESSICA HAUSNER, GÉRALDINE BAJARD | STARRING: EMILY BEECHAM, BEN WHISHAW, KERRY FOX, KIT CONNOR | RELEASE DATE: FEBRUARY 21ST
Alice is a plant breeder working on a new strain of manufactured flowers designed to create a sense of happiness and well-being in the owner if the plant is properly cared for, spoken to, and nurtured. Under pressure to have it ready for an important event, she bypasses some of the safety requirements in the plant’s genetics, and even takes one home as a gift for her son, calling the plant Little Joe in her boy’s honour. When a co-worker with a history of mental illness tries to persuade Alice that those who inhale the plant’s pollen change, becoming a kind of ‘Little Joe protection army’, Alice dismisses the claims. But she soon starts to notice subtle differences in her son’s behaviour and that of some colleagues. Has her creation mutated into something else or is it all in her mind?
In a modern take on Invasion of the Body Snatchers, replacing alien invasion with themes around mental health, antidepressants, and well-being, writer-director Jessica Hausner has created a film so formally mannered in its execution and so relentlessly understated that you do at times feel you might have had an unofficial scratch and sniff of Joe’s pollen yourself just by watching it.
Long takes within sterile sets, often monotone delivery, a pace which rarely shifts, if at all - Little Joe proves that there’s a fine line between hypnotic and somnambulant. It just, and only just, stays upon the hypnotic side but you do sometimes wish that the film, in exploring its themes, allowed a little more of the explosive chaos that the plant is designed to combat into its narrative.
Only a few scenes with the ever wonderful Kerry Fox hint at that, her character’s history of mental illness cleverly used as the harbinger of doom, the apparently unstable one being the sanest person around. Elsewhere the cast do a fine job, Ben Wishaw is dependable as ever and Emily Beecham doing fine work in the lead, although her Best Actress win at Cannes is a little curious. (Perhaps the Jury had been sent some Little Joe’s of their own before they watched the film.)
So, while it’s an interesting, never boring film, its style and relentless refusal to change tone keeps you at an emotional distance throughout, making it difficult to care. You long for something explosive to happen and it doesn’t, which is surely part of the point that Hausner is making, but Little Joe is at times the cinematic equivalent of taking some heavy mood stabilisers.