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LITTLE JOE (2019)
Directed by Jessica Hausner
Written by Géraldine Bajard, 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, Lindsay Duncan
Find out more about this film here!
For the most part, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHER-type movies are my cup of tea. Get the right direction and twist on the story, and this subgenre of paranoia always gets to me. While there are some extremely effective parts to LITTLE JOE, I feel the director went a bit too artsy for her own good—making this one of the few exceptions to my rule.
Botanist Alice Woodard (Emily Beecham) seeks to develop a new type of plant that bonds with its owner by enabling it to have a symbiotic relationship. If the owner gives it some tender love and care, the plant pays its owner back by releasing pollen that enables the owner to be happy. Developing this plant is a big deal for the botany world as it means that there could be endless benefits therapeutically, sociologically, politically, and medically for a plant that helps us be peaceful and content. But as the corporation she works for rushes forward with plans of release, Alice begins to notice something might be very wrong with her newly engineered flower species after she takes one home and her son begins to change overnight once bonded with the plant. Soon, more people are not acting like themselves and Alice feels that no one is listening when she decrees the plant to be not as safe as she envisioned.
LITTLE JOE isn’t playing things subtle in the way it handles everything from emotional heft to thoughts on Big pharma/corporate greed and our yearning for a quick cure-all fix rather than real work to get better. The film really is trying its best to tackle a lot and I think the weight of it all is just too immense for the size and scope of this story. Sure there are some nice contradictions with Alice’s character as she is a distant mother, not connecting with her child, but dedicated to make a flower that alters emotions. Alice also contradicts herself by going to a therapist to talk about her problems while slaving away in the lab to make therapy obsolete. This is some fun matter to play with, but unfortunately, little is done with that ripe material as the film instead also has to squeeze in a love interest for Alice, pressure from her bosses and co-workers, and a side-plot with the always great Kerry Fox and her distrust of the new plant. All of it revolves around this new species of flower, but feels like a lot for the film to handle in a satisfying manner.
It doesn’t help that everyone and everything in this film besides the bright red flower is cold and emotionless. Beecham’s Alice is distant in the beginning and when she begins to have suspicions about the flower, she becomes even more distant. I think a better way to communicate the development of Alice’s character might have been to soften her up a bit at the beginning and then widen the gap between those under the trance of the flower and herself. It’s hard to feel the paranoia this film wants us to feel when it is hard to connect with the actors in the first place.
It is also problematic to quantify happiness and I think more thought might have been put in to illustrate how this flower was supposed to do what it does. If anything, the flower numbs the owner rather than makes him or her happy. A glimpse as to what it is like inside the mind of those under the flower’s trance might have helped. This leads to a missed opportunity to address the similarities between drug use and the flower as it may feel like one was getting happy to the user, but in reality, the effects only distance the users from any emotion at all. I think all of these are great themes, but I don’t think the film really took advantage of all of this material prime for plucking.
It doesn’t help that LITTLE JOE has one of the most pretentious and distracting soundtracks you’re ever going to hear. The Kabuki theater inspired music becomes tedious. I can appreciate a different take on scoring a film as much as the next guy, but the minimalist music consisting of sticks clacking, a single drum beat, and even a cacophony of dogs barking proved to be more distracting than what it is intended to do, which is amplify the mood. If anything, it contradicted the mood which feels like it is going for emotional subtlety, but instead punctuates each scene with some kind of sound from STOMP’s B-sides.
With the missed opportunities in theme and direction and a distracting soundtrack, one would think I loathed LITTLE JOE. I didn’t. The design of the flower was both beautiful and nightmarish and I appreciated the minimalist setting despite the fact that it distracted from the themes of the story. Production wise, I think there’s a lot going for LITTLE JOE and maybe those who are into more subtle and socially conscientious sci fi might like it more than me. I just feel like it could have been so much more. I’m sure this film had a smaller budget, but that is no excuse from the mischaracterization of the main character and the fact that the entire film looks and feels icy. Without a contradicting vibrant world represented in this film, does the flower that numbs really make any changes at all? That was the main question I left this film with and I don’t think that’s what the filmmakers intended. Unfortunately, LITTLE JOE is a good looking, decently acted missed opportunity all around.
I totally agree on the soundtrack issues and almost found it to be offensive when it plays and there is a character of Asian decent on screen.
A better suggestion would have been instead of the completely distracting bongo solos would have been to slowly and subtly replace the instruments with sounds that were not played by human hands. I’m not saying full on Trent Reznor but something.
Also, for a plot in which the audience is completely ahead of the characters at all points, the ending was played way too soft and right down the middle of Broadway.
No last ditch efforts to save humanity and zero sense of urgency amongst the characters.
It was as if even the filmmakers were lulled to sleep by their own pacing and said okay, let’s wrap it up here.