Little Joe review – slow-burn sci-fi is intriguing and frustrating

Jessica Hausner takes aim at the mood-altering drugs market with this interesting but slow film about genetically engineered plants

There is an undeniably insidious and menacing streak running though Little Joe, a fusion of sci-fi and horror that isn’t strictly either. It marks the English-language debut from Austrian writer-director Jessica Hausner, and stars Emily Beecham, who won the Best Actress award last year at Cannes for her performance as a plant scientist whose genetic meddling leads to something sinister. Or does it? The film has much intrigue and plenty going for it, though ultimately winds up feeling like too much work for too little gain.

The story takes place in an England much like our own, where only small details have been changed to suggest some vision of the near future. Laboratory interiors, splashed with vibrant colours, have a strange, retro-futuristic design that harkens back to sci-fi classics like Silent Running. It’s here that Alice (Beecham) works alongside her lab partner, Chris (Ben Whishaw), on a special breed of plant they’ve nicknamed “Little Joe,” in honour of Alice’s son (Kit Connor). The hope is that these Little Joes, properly cared for, will alter the moods of their owners, increasing happiness levels: antidepressants in all but name.

The range of influences are obvious: Hausner has taken bits and pieces from all over the place, including sci-fi classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers, M. Night Shyamalan’s laughable eco-thriller The Happening, and plant-based musical-comedy Little Shop of Horrors, another film about a seemingly helpful plant with malevolent intentions. All these familiar associations don’t exactly help Little Joe to feel like its own thing, though, and lacking Snatchers‘ thrills, The Happening‘s pulpiness, and Shop‘s talking plant, it opts instead for a kind of endless, sterile uncomfortableness that is only half successful.

Though Hausner never commits to a single explanation, it’s suggested that Alice’s plants are attempting to overcome their infertility, Jurassic Park-style, through the release of pathogens that subtly control the behaviour of the humans around them. Yet there is also a hint, perhaps, that the characters, simply believing this to be the case, are instead acting out their inner most desires – a mild case of mass hysteria. This ambiguity gives Little Joe much of its appeal, but Hausner ultimately struggles to bring any of her ideas to a point where the film becomes truly interesting instead of only mildly.

Hausner finds the film’s best thread in her exploration of Alice’s relationship with her son, Joe, probing her place as his mother – and her right to feel biologically unattached to such a role. The film is also clearly concerned with the mass marketing of antidepressants, but it could also be talking about the way we live our lives today, pacified not only by drugs, but by the internet itself. At points the core ideas feel overemphasised and over-explained, and by the end a bit wasted.

Beecham gives a good performance, reserved and unshowy, though to the extent that her success at Cannes will probably come as a surprise to those expecting something more explosive. Whishaw, meanwhile, is relegated to a small but not exactly uninteresting part, especially since we can’t be sure where his character’s real personality ends and his plant-affected one begins. A purposely jarring score, courtesy of composer Teiji Ito, feels totally at odds with whatever’s playing on screen, though perhaps only because we have been conditioned to think as much.

These elements are individually impressive, but something about the movie is ultimately distancing, like an arthouse deconstruction of Day of the Triffids that seems designed to purposely suck the joy out of the viewing experience. When Alice jokingly argues that the Little Joes are not, in fact, turning people into zombies, you wonder whether that might have made for a more compelling picture without sacrificing its intentions. There are signs of life and this is a film certain to provoke much discussion, but Little Joe never really grows into anything substantial.

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