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Little Joe

Little Joe (2019) Movie Poster
Austria / UK / Germany  •    •  105m  •    •  Directed by: Jessica Hausner.  •  Starring: Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox, Kit Connor, Phénix Brossard, Leanne Best, Andrew Rajan, David Wilmot, Goran Kostic, Yana Yanezic, Sebastian Hülk, Jessie Mae Alonzo, Phoebe Austen..
      Alice, a single mother, is a dedicated senior plant breeder at a corporation engaged in developing new species. She has engineered a very special crimson flower, remarkable not only for its beauty but also for its therapeutic value: if kept at the ideal temperature, fed properly and spoken to regularly, this plant makes its owner happy. Against company policy, Alice takes one home as a gift for her teenage son, Joe. They christen it 'Little Joe' but as it grows, so too does Alice's suspicion that her new creations may not be as harmless as their nickname suggests.


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Image from: Little Joe (2019)
Image from: Little Joe (2019)
Image from: Little Joe (2019)
Image from: Little Joe (2019)
Image from: Little Joe (2019)
Image from: Little Joe (2019)
Image from: Little Joe (2019)
Little Joe is a clinically detached, aesthetically fascinating pseudo-horror with a killer premise, but questionable execution. I thoroughly enjoyed the first hour or so, relishing the slow pace and methodical build. However, at around the 75-minute mark, I realised that this wasn't a slow build to something; this slow build was the something. And with that realisation, it didn't take long for tedium to settle in. I certainly admire the thematic complexity and stunning visual and aural design, but, in its totality, the film is completely lifeless, the tone rigidly detached and dispassionate, like a long sentence spoken in a gratingly monotone voice. I wish I had enjoyed it a lot more than I did, but the fact is, I found the last act (which is not especially dissimilar to the previous acts) a real struggle to get through.

Alice (Emily Beecham) is a plant breeder at Planthouse Biotechnologies, a bioengineering lab that designs new types of flora. As the film begins, she and her colleague Chris (Ben Whishaw) are unveiling their latest creation - a flower she's named Little Joe, which omits a scent that makes people happy on a biochemical level. Shortly thereafter, Alice smuggles a Little Joe out of the lab and gifts it to her young son Joe (Kit Connor), after whom she named the flower. Meanwhile, Planthouse employee Bella (Kerry Fox), who has had mental health problems in the past, becomes concerned for her dog, Bello, who has started to show unexplainable signs of aggression. Bella soon becomes concerned that this change has been brought about by exposure to Little Joe's pollen, but Alice is dismissive of her fears, until she starts to notice subtle changes in Joe's behaviour as well.

Written by
Jessica Hausner and Géraldine Bajard, and directed by Hausner, Little Joe is kind of like an episode of Black Mirror (2011), but focusing on biology rather than technology. Building a general tone of unease rather than relying on traditional horror beats, if you've seen any of Hausner's previous films, you'll recognise some of the techniques used here; the stilted, declamatory performances that are a step or two divorced from reality (similar to, although not as idiosyncratic as, the staccato performances in Yorgos Lanthimos's early work); the vaguely defined character motivations; a prominent use of passivity; ambiguity regarding the central storyline - in the excellent Lourdes (2009), this was manifested in the possibility that Christine (Sylvie Testud) may or may not have been miraculously healed, whereas here, it's whether or not people are really changing, or is Alice suffering from Capgras Delusion?

The most immediately obvious element of the film is the extraordinary sound design by
Erik Mischijew and Matz Müller. Before we see any images, we hear a high-pitched drone, which later becomes a motif that's used multiple times to suggest unease and danger. Important to the sound design is the score, or rather the lack of score. Hausner elected not to have original music composed for the film, but instead to use existing music written by Teiji Ito, which itself is deeply discordant, abrasive, and unsettling and which blends into the sound design. On top of this, Mischijew and Müller frequently use the sounds of screeching metal, rustling, screams, and dogs barking. It's all wonderfully chaotic, defamiliarising, and unnerving.

The other aesthetic element that really pops is the cinematography, specifically how the camera moves. Director of photography
Martin Gschlacht often shots scenes as if he's capturing images for a diorama - long, slow pans that often start and finish with the characters not in the frame. Equally as interesting is that on two occasions, he shoots a conversation by very slowly tracking in between the participants to the point where neither one is on-screen.

Thematically, concerns pertaining to genetic engineering are front and centre, and in one respect, it's a cautionary pseudo-Frankenstein tale, a story of how playing God can go wrong. Another theme is the workhome divide. Alice is more focused on her job than her home - one of the first things we hear Joe say to her is, "all you can see are your flowers" - and her decision to bring a Little Joe home is a rather ridiculous attempt to redress the balance; her attempt to (re)integrate the two areas of her life.

The film also looks at what could be called "cognitive zombification" and suggests that if happiness could be made tangible and commodified, rather than such knowledge being used for the betterment of mankind, it would instead be a tool for control. If you created something that could make people fundamentally happy, think of the power you'd wield if you took that thing away, and only you could restore it; "sure, I'll let you experience that bliss again, all you have to do is everything I say". In an age when happiness as an abstract concept is being distilled into the evermore tangible (think of people whose happiness rests almost entirely on getting likes on social media), Little Joe posits a scenario where the abstract is made completely literal.

However, it's also in relation to the issue of people's happiness that we can see one of the film's biggest problems. Whilst the idea that most people would be willing to take fake happiness over real discontent is a compelling one, on more than one occasion, Hausner equates such happiness with the use of anti-depressants. There are multiple references to Bella not being the same since she started taking medication, and the film seems to say that the daily use of pharmaceuticals is akin to people being somehow less than their "real" selves. That this is a naïve view hardly needs explaining; one need only mention people who suffer from depression or those with chronic pain - such people need their medication as much as someone with diabetes needs insulin or someone with a heart condition needs nitro-glycerine. So to suggest that they are somehow being zombified is not only inaccurate, it's dangerous, the kind of rubbish that Scientologists yammer on about.

On a slightly different point, I'm not sure that the depiction of Alice's difficulty in finding a balance between home and work, and the suggestion that she has only achieved professional success by neglecting her child, will go down very well with the tens of thousands of professional women who are also single mothers, and who have managed to climb the ladder of success and be there for their children. And, as I've already outlined, the film's pacing becomes a real issue in the last act, when you realise Hausner has little interest in building to anything even mildly resembling a traditional dénouement.

Little Joe has a lot going for it - an intriguing premise, a great cast, a gorgeous visual design, a superb aural design - but it all matters little when the narrative is so tediously plodding, with a message about pharmaceuticals that's well-intentioned and partially accurate, but also misguided. I do hope the film opens doors for Hausner, who's clearly a talented filmmaker. But as an individual exercise, it just didn't work for me. Lacking the subtle ambiguity of Lourdes, the bombast of a horror, the esoteric coherence of a satire, and the narrative drive of a thriller, Little Joe kind of ends up somewhere awkwardly in between.

Review by Bertaut from the Internet Movie Database.