Jessica Hausner (director)
15 June 2020 (released)
17 June 2020
LITTLE JOE claims to be a ‘tense, paranoid sci-fi thriller that pinpoints the uncanny within the familiar to unnerving effect’. It is Austrian director Jessica Hausner’s first English language feature. It is also a monumentally wasted opportunity that, given the story’s interesting premise, could have resulted in something remarkable… alas, it has not.
As it stands, the film never quite manages to tick the right boxes thanks to an agonisingly slow pace whilst the ‘unnerving effects’ remain so subdued they’re hardly noticeable.
Meet single mother Alice Woodard (Emily Beecham) – a workaholic and dedicated plant breeder working for a mighty corporation which is currently engaged in developing a new species of plant, or flower, rather: with it’s poppy-red, spiky petals it’s not only a bit of a looker but it’s supposed to make the prospective owner happy. You see, if kept at the right temperature, fed properly and spoken to regularly the flower’s scent (and pollen) supress unhappy, negative feelings and thought-patterns in its new owners. So far, so good! But soon it becomes clear that the flower alters the personality of those who come into close proximity with it, in fact, they turn into different persons without actually visibly changing.
Alice’s colleague Bella (Kerry Fox) first notices a change in her beloved dog Bello who eventually goes missing in the lab (seeing how everything needs to be sterile to the point of irritating it’s a trifle weird that someone’s scruffy pet should be allowed in the building at all). Fellow colleague and plant researcher cum breeder Chris (Ben Whishaw) accidentally inhales some of the pollen while looking for the dog. Not only does the usually shy and timid Chris come on to Alice during an after-work drink in the pub but Bella – who’s only recently returned to work after having suffered a mental breakdown – keeps on insisting that Bello is no longer the dog she used to know and eventually has him put down (as you do) just for behaving weird. Weird? You can say that again!
While Chris and all the others, including their team-leader Karl (David Wilmot) are focused on getting the ‘Happy Flowers’ ready for some flower show (no, it wouldn’t be the Chelsea one) Alice decides to break protocol and secretly takes one of the flowers back home… presumably because the relationship with her teenage son Joe (Kit Connor) is mightily strained due to her busy work schedule – cue for Joe to spend the weekend with his dad who lives in a remote country house since he broke up with Alice. She nicknames the plant ‘Little Joe’. Soon though, Joe’s behaviour begins to change though in a way that only Alice seems to notice – cue for endless domestic twaddle over the pros and cons of allowing Joe to live with his Dad or not. In between, tensions at work arise when Alice claims the plant might have an unwanted side effect as it changes people (into what, exactly?) while Chris, clearly besotted with Alice, continues to pursue her romantically. In a later scene, Joe and his girlfriend Selma sneak into the lab at night after having stolen his mother’s access card and ‘liberate’ another Little Joe plant and his dad Ivan (Sebastian Hülk) is exposed.
Back in the lab, Alice is convinced that the strange flowers carry a virus and need to be destroyed though Chris and his colleagues won’t have any of it. After regular visits to her psychotherapist (Lindsay Duncan) we are subjected to more domestic twaddle when Alice’s shrink suggests that what she really wanted all along is a singular focus on her career, therefore she shouldn’t feel guilty that her son harbours thoughts to live with his Dad. The climax – which is more of an anti-climax – shall not be revealed but Anna walks away a… happy person.
Admittedly, the visuals are impressive and cinematographer Martin Gschlacht has done a great job in capturing the vividness of the plants juxtaposed against the antiseptic mint-green hues of the lab. In fact, great attention has been paid to colour-coding everything to perfection – even Anna’s personal wardrobe including her smart blouses and trousers always look as if the latest copy of Marie Claire were at hand. Unfortunately, the script (also written by Jessica Hausner in collaboration with Géraldine Bajard) is very much on the lacklustre side and that also goes for the pace of the film’s direction, with the actors almost sleepwalking through each scene. Just when we look forward to the possibility of eerie action nothing happens… yet again.
Emily Beecham (who won the ‘Best Actress’ award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival) is almost in every scene and holds the paper-thin plot together whilst Ben Wishaw as her co-star delivers a solid if underused performance.
LITTLE JOE is available in Dual Format and Bonus Features include interviews with cast and crew, a 37 min conversation with director Jessica Hausner, the 1910 short-film ‘Birth of a Flower’ plus illustrated booklet (first pressing only).