A new species of plant poses a threat to humanity in Jessica Hausner’s quietly chilling sci-fi.
If there’s one lesson from science fiction cinema that’s worth being reminded of at a time of global ecological crisis, it’s that you should never mess with Mother Nature – and if you do, you’d better be prepared for the consequences. This pertinent warning is the seed of Austrian writer/director Jessica Hausner’s Little Joe, which puts perennial flaws in humankind’s design under the microscope to quietly chilling effect.
The film centres around talented botanist and single mother Alice (Emily Beecham), who has recently developed a special type of plant genetically modified to produce a mood-altering pollen. Of the various breeding programmes being carried out at Planthouse, a state-of-the-art corporate laboratory located somewhere in the UK, it’s Alice’s creation that has staff and shareholders most excited – miraculously, it makes anyone who sniffs it feel happy.
Alice christens this major scientific breakthrough ‘Little Joe’ after her teenage son (Kit Connor), and breaks protocol by gifting him a specimen. She gives him simple instructions to follow: keep the plant warm at all times; water it regularly; talk to it and it will talk back. It quickly transpires, however, that beyond its therapeutic properties Little Joe may cause an unexpected side effect. And we’re not talking your garden variety allergic reaction.
If Hausner’s film appears to share some of its thematic DNA with such horticultural horrors as The Day of the Triffids and Little Shop of Horrors, it should be noted that Little Joe is neither carnivorous nor overtly hostile. Instead it seems to be causing almost imperceptible changes in people’s personalities, making them less empathetic and more erratic in their behaviour. They act strangely – as if they are no longer themselves – but not enough to raise the alarm and halt production.
Much of the atmosphere and dramatic tension in the film stems from the surface-level ambiguity of Hausner and co-writer Géraldine Bajard’s script, which constantly challenges our perception of the characters and, allegorically, our readiness to accept scientific authority. Could a plant ever mutate in a way that would allow it to infect and take control of the human brain? Are Alice’s child and colleagues really changing as a result of inhaling the pollen emitted from these pleasant-looking flowers, as she suspects, or is it all in her mind?
If the latter is true it means that senior plant breeder Bella (Kerry Fox), the film’s other main female character, is the one who is psychologically unstable. This raises a slight issue with the script: while on the one hand Hausner and Bajard make a conscious effort to subvert the ‘hysterical woman’ trope that is still so prevalent in popular culture, they also use Bella’s history of manic depression to attempt to manipulate the audience’s view of her present state of mind. It’s possibly intended as a comment on the way society has stigmatised mental illness, but it comes across as a little lazy and tone-deaf.
That aside, there is so much to admire here, from the uncanny, purposely stilted manner of Beecham’s performance, to Katharina Wöppermann’s antiseptic, Cronenberg-esque production design, to the sparse, eerie sound design by Erik Mischijev and Matz Müller, to the angular, hypnotic music lifted from the late Japanese composer Teiji Ito’s 1971 album ‘Watermill’, to the design and animation of the plants by Marko Waschke and Markus Kircher respectively. It’s impressive how Hausner manages to splice together all these distinctive elements so harmoniously.
In essence, Little Joe is a tale of survival, not just with regards to the titular organism, which seemingly finds a way to reproduce despite having been engineered to be infertile, but Alice too. Throughout the film she attends therapy sessions where she expresses guilt over not spending enough time with her son. She clearly loves Joe but raising a child virtually single-handed (Joe’s father, from whom Alice is separated, is absent for the most part) is a big commitment, especially for someone as career-driven as she is.
Knowing how our culture places huge expectation and pressure on single parents, there’s something especially potent about the way the film dissects the unquestionable bond between a mother and her child. Alice is not uncaring or unsympathetic but crucially she is not shown to crave human connection, rejecting Ben Whishaw’s would-be suitor and maintaining a curious emotional distance from everyone. You get the impression she secretly wishes to be free of the burden of being responsible to another person, concealing her true feelings to maintain an acceptable social facade.
It’s at this point the haunting truth of Hausner’s film begins to crystallise. Even though she faces a serious ethical dilemma over whether to release Little Joe into the wider world, potentially resetting the course of human evolution, Alice implicitly understands that only by continuing to cultivate her kinship with her new child can she ever hope to be fully content.
Published 18 May 2019
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