Little Joe review: Jessica Hausner's horticultural thriller updates Invasion of the Body Snatchers to our fake happy era
A small-scale horticultural sci-fi thriller, Jessica Hausner's Little Joe offers as much genre pleasures as it does social commentary.
castEmily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox, Kit Connor, David Wilmot, Phenix Brossard, Sebastian Hulk, Lindsay Duncan
Jessica Hausner's Little Joe, which premiered at Cannes 2019, is further proof that you don't need an astronomical budget or A-list stars to make a hauntingly good science fiction film. The film updates the plot of Invasion of the Body Snatchers to our fake happy era, with a Charlie Brooker-style cautionary tale. A small-scale horticultural thriller, Little Joe offers as much genre pleasures as it does social commentary.
Hausner started her career as a script assistant on fellow Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke's Funny Games, and a similar aesthetic of existential dread and a seemingly cynical perspective permeates the immaculately crafted images of her latest film. Her previous films, Inter-View, Lovely Rita, Hotel and Amour Fou, premiered in Cannes' sidebar sections; this time, she is one of four women directors in the race for Palme d'Or.
Little Joe takes an unambiguous stand against a pill-popping culture searching for quick fixes for complex mental problems — a culture which has turned happiness into a commodity that can be purchased on a trip down to the mall.
Emily Beecham plays Alice, a plant breeder in a futuristic biotech firm. Along with her colleague Chris (Ben Whishaw), she has genetically engineered a strain of flower, which produces a scent which makes people happy by releasing oxytocin (the hormone traditionally released during interactions between mothers and infants). But it needs to be watered regularly and cared for with plenty of love and attention. A single mother, Alice christens it "Little Joe" after her young son (Kit Connor). Racked with guilt for neglecting him, she even breaks company rules, and takes one home and gifts it to him.
Alice has bred the flower to be sterile. However, as someone in th film remarks, self-preservation and the will to survive is what drives all living beings. Soon, things get out of hand when the sentient flower starts to control all those who inhale its pollen to ensure its continued survival. Bella (Kerry Fox), one of Alice's colleagues, first raises the alarm after her own dog fails to recognise her. But her claims are dismissed as the paranoid hysterics of a madwoman.
One by one, the frankenflower turns all of Alice's colleagues into single-minded, extremely protective drones. When her son begins to display similar strange behaviour, she realises the true extent of her nefarious creation and tries to save him from its grasp.
Little Joe's pacing is moved more by its thematic suggestions than its plot details. It has a rich emotional core and resonant themes of parental anxiety and guilt of a single working mother. Alice struggles to stay in control of her work, her life and her son. This reflects our contemporary workaholic culture and the resulting cycle of burnout and depression.
The frankenflower dehumanises its victims and Hausner uses this to question the numbing of our individuality through conformity and group-think.
The film has a hypnotic pull, drawing the viewer deeper and deeper into its story with long panaromic shots enhanced by some truly unsettling music. The existential dread is felt viscerally through an odd but effective Japanese combination of flute, eerie percussion, metallic sounds and manic barking sounds. Hausner directs the film with a clinical dispassion, creating a visual bath of sorts with a boutique hotel aesthetic and a palette of posterised colours.
Little Joe is creepy, compelling and surges with cerebral and emotional speculation, making it one of the year's best sci-fi outings.
Little Joe had its world premiere at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.
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