There is much to be admire in Jessica Hausner’s first English language film ‘Little Joe’. It’s glorious cinematography and unconventional score mixing with a homage to both Day of the Triffids and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. While also embracing the tongue in cheek mystery of Tales of the Unexpected. However, despite its glorious visuals and promise of excellence this is a film that sadly never reaches the heights of its potential. With a story that looses its way in the translation to a feature length film. Creating a beautiful, haunting but deeply frustrating enigma.
Alice (Emily Beecham) is a divorced single mother scientist. Developing a strain of genetically engineered plants whose scent will make people happy. A workaholic, Alice balances her love of all things botanical with taking care of her teenage son Joe (Kit Connor). While her colleague Chris (Ben Whishaw), is secretly in love with her, Joe trying to encourage his mother to see the unconfident love Chris displays.
To ensure the success of her mood enhancing plant Alice breaks the rules. Accelerating the plant’s development with no testing of its properties. Even bringing one home and naming it “Little Joe”. And while the beautiful red flower of ‘Little Joe’ may have been stopped from reproducing naturally. The clever plant finds a way of ensuring its survival by slowly changing those who breath in its ejected pollen.
Hausner bathes Little Joe in sumptuous colour and light. Creating an almost sexual atmosphere as the plant unfolds, surrounded by the sterility of the lab it was birthed within. When coupled with its truly unique score, this creates a beautiful visual and auditory journey. However, this is unfortunately never matched by the story at its heart.
One of the biggest failings in Hausner’s ‘Little Joe’ comes from a lack of any real trepidation, comedy or horror. The filming sitting in a strange genre limbo, never quite knowing what it wants to be. The plant changing people into nothing more than bland versions of themselves. With little entertainment value to the transition from human to plant obsessed human-hybrid.
Equally problematic are the interesting science fiction themes left hanging. In particular the price of pure happiness on human creativity and emotion. A theme that could have rescued Little Joe in its narrative, but sits on the sidelines never allowed to flourish. Its final thoughts appearing to centre on how dull life would be if we were all eternally happy.
Performances are strong, but equally feel restrained. The actors ability to play with the narrative and themes on display never fully embraced. While moments of dark humour are few and far between. However, there is a mesmeric quality to Little Joe, one that pulls you into its weird world of science fiction flora. Tearing you from your seat with a truly delicious and quasi sexual tale of horticulture.
Ultimately Little Joe would have made a sublime short film or stand alone TV drama. But as a feature length film it stretches itself beyond the story at its heart, creating a deeply frustrating yet beautiful final product.
Director: Jessica Hausner
Cast: Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox, Kit Conner, Phénix Brossard, David Wilmot