CERT: 12 / DIRECTOR: JESSICA HAUSNER / SCREENPLAY: JESSICA HAUSNER, GERALDINE BAJARD /STARRING: EMILY BEECHAM, BEN WHISHAW, KERRY FOX, KIT CONNOR / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
We are currently living in a frustrated, pent-up world full of anger and fury, finger-pointing, and fist-shaking. Social media is awash with furores and backlashes, and everyone currently appears to be obsessed with either causing offence or being offended. Little Joe, Jessica Hausner’s eerie and disquieting debut English-language feature film offers us the possibility of a life detached from such tiresome inconveniences and leaves the audience to decide if we’d be better off with our baser instinctive passions removed or perhaps turned into something less than human.
In a cold and clinical laboratory facility somewhere non-specific, a group of scientists, including Emily Beecham’s divorced mum Alice Woodard, are working to genetically engineer a new type of plant that will survive extended periods of neglect and undernourishment. But they inadvertently create a flower that actually requires more care but which induces heightened calm and happiness in its owner. Alice’s colleague Bella (Fox) suspects that something is amiss and she believes that the pollen from these new, sterilised plants, is having a strange effect on those who inhale it. Naturally no-one believes her. Alice names the new plants ‘Little Joe’ after her young son and takes one home. But suddenly her son starts to behave oddly, his whole demeanour changed overnight…
Fans of Jack Finney’s book The Body Snatchers and its subsequent film adaptations and indeed any fantasy story in which human free will and identity is compromised will absolutely adore Little Joe. Jessica Hausner has created a chilling and disturbing film set in a world we recognise but seems slightly off-kilter thanks to the clipped, snipped dialogue from its slightly (and undoubtedly purposely) stilted and disconnected characters and Martin Gschlacht’s inventive cinematography, in which the camera often moves slowly in on characters, eventually cutting them out of the frame altogether and focusing on something inconsequential and apparently irrelevant in the middle of the image. The film builds up a quiet sense of dread as the effects of the pollen become more and more apparent and its strange dislocation is intensified by the film’s thoughtful production design and colour palette, and an edgy soundtrack, which often consists of random bangs and crashes and, now and again, a cacophony of crashing drums and barking dogs.
Little Joe is a brilliant, unshowy movie that delivers a subtle, skilled marriage of themes from Invasion of the Bodysnatchers and Day of the Triffids and it quietly, subtly, evokes the former’s sense of paranoia and fear of the loss of self as nature asserts itself and gently puts the arrogance of man firmly back in its place. A cautionary tale for these strange times, perhaps, and a haunting, beautiful and stunning piece of arthouse science fiction in its own right.