Director: Jessica Hausner
Writers: Geraldine Bajard and Jessica Hausner
Starring: Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox
Genre: Drama / Sci Fi
Single mother Alice (Beecham) is a dedicated senior plant breeder at a corporation engaged in developing a new species. Against company policy, she takes one of these new species home as a gift for her son. However, when she starts to notice a dramatic change both in her son’s behaviour and that of some of her work colleagues, Alice suspects that this may be caused by the plant’s scent.
The whole concept of nature fighting back to maintain its survival is certainly nothing new, and Little Joe is very happy to use familiar clichés and tropes from the likes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Day of the Triffids, but sadly never really does much else with them. Jessica Hausner also provides us with plenty of long takes captured by a camera that slowly pans across a scene and a slightly unnerving score that features frequent dissonant harmonies and random sounds, such as dogs barking, but as mildly effective as this may be at creating a certain amount of mood and atmosphere, it has all been done many times before.
Little Joe is most certainly a very well made film and Jessica Hausner creates a very effective and unsettling atmosphere that compliments the film’s main story and themes, but because the visual style cannot quite match the copy-and-paste substance, it does inevitably feel a little too smug. This degree of feeling pleased with itself is best summed up by Kerry Fox’s character; her character is tasked with constantly providing exposition that explains the plot through some painfully clunky dialogue, and this is truly unnecessary as the plot is not actually that complicated or difficult to understand. However, the fact that those involved feel that they need a character whose sole existence is to explain the plot suggests that they think their film is far cleverer than it actually is, and that they quite patronisingly think that the audience will not understand it. While I must admit that I am not sure of the accuracy of the biology, the actual central concept to Little Joe is very simple
The simplicity of the concept is actually very effective and would be far more effective if we were not given a character that constantly explained everything to us. The main character has regular therapy sessions, which serves as perfect exposition without needing this extra character to also patronisingly explain everything to us. This is all a shame as Little Joe does pose some interesting questions and have some haunting moments. Though it does not quite enter as deep a philosophical debate as much as I (or those that made it) would like it to, it does pose the question of what really is human emotion and how can it be quantified, and the fact that the concept of ‘happiness’ is very much relative, and if everyone believes they are happy (even if they may well no longer be their actual selves) then is that actually a bad thing? The slow-burn pace certainly does create a very effective atmosphere, and there are undoubtedly many unnerving scenes involving its central characters as we are not sure if they are actually themselves are not. There are also many potentially interesting philosophical debates that Little Joe sadly only touches the surface of, and all involved seem to be more focussed on giving us stylish shots of the laboratory the characters work in instead of this, or indeed patronisingly explaining the plot.
The performances from the cast are all very effective; they could certainly be described as slightly wooden, but that fits perfectly with the tone of the film as we are no longer sure if they are truly themselves, they are still themselves but with just a different perspective on life or indeed not themselves at all. This is one of the few elements of the film that does remain slightly open to interpretation and is all the more effective and memorable for it. Ben Whishaw is a great actor and watchable in anything he does, and is superb as the main character’s colleague, and because of Whishaw’s great performance we can never be truly sure if he is ‘infected’ or if that is just who he actually is. Emily Beecham is also very effective as Alice, but the because of the clichéd nature of her character, she is given a very difficult task.
As the plot develops, it follows a very predictable path, which is not helped by the smug presentation of the plot, but it does certainly provide some very interesting philosophical questions – even if these are more by accident than anything else. As watchable as Little Joe most certainly is (and refreshing proof that a big budget is not always required to provide effective sci-fi), it does have to ultimately be classed as a waste of potential.
An initially interesting premise is let down by a reliance on genre clichés and patronising over-explanation; Little Joe is certainly watchable and provides some interesting philosophical ideas but is ultimately a film of style over substance.