Truth and Movies

Little Joe

Review by David Jenkins @daveyjenkins

Directed by

Jessica Hausner

Starring

Ben Whishaw Emily Beecham Kerry Fox

Anticipation.

Jessica Hausner hasn’t really made a bad film, so reason to be hopeful for this one.

Enjoyment.

A weirder, subtler film than its surface suggests.

In Retrospect.

A real thinker. And Beecham is very deserving of her Best Actress gong from Cannes 2019.

A botanist develops a revolutionary new plant in Jessica Hausner’s sci-fi tinged social parable.

Actor Emily Beecham is styled to resemble an exotic flower in Jessica Hausner’s acetic paranoid psychodrama Little Joe. Her hair is formed into an opulent orange bouffant, and she scurries around her laboratory in an eerie mint-green lab coat which looks like a stamen.

There’s a parallel between her confused and possibly depressed character, Alice, and “Little Joe”, the plant she and her cheery co-worker Chris (Ben Whishaw) have genetically engineered together, and which she has named after her teenage son. They both look outwardly harmless – some might say pleasantly beguiling – but deep down their attempts to make those around them happy are not entirely successful.

Little Joe emits a happiness-inducing pheromone when you talk to it, and is seen as a zeitgeist-friendly breakthrough in the world of plant breeding. Yet this revolutionary plant is also the film’s femme fatale, with its luxuriant red petals which prick up when it’s aroused so as to lure unsuspecting victims with a noxious perfume and then swipe away their dignity when they least suspect it.

This is Austrian writer/director Hausner’s first English-language film, and her predilection for clipped, coldly emotional line readings dovetails neatly with the clinical tenor of the subject matter. Initially, the film appears as an eccentric riff on the classic plant-based horror movies of yore, in which humans are enveloped in the aggressive breeding and cloning life cycle of some kind of exotic alien organism.

Here, though, it’s a psychological takeover rather than a physical one, as characters are not merely numbed to the depression they suffer every day, but to all emotions, both positive and negative. Little Joe neutralises feeling rather than enhancing mood, but instead of going the Frankenstein route by pitting Alice against her unwieldy creation, the film focuses on one of the side effects of being this lackadaisical state: truth-telling.

Alice lives alone with her son (Kit Connor) and is so busy at work that she barely has any time to bring him up or tend to his wellbeing. Seeing what Little Joe does to the people around her – occasionally even drawing them towards violence – leads Alice to unearth desires that go against social, professional and gender norms.

Despite its eerie mid-section, and a string of genre-like sequences of Alice digging into research about the potential effects of Little Joe were it made saleable to the public at large, the film comes across as more interested in exploring how women fare in a male-dominated work environment, and also the coping strategies used to ward off the manifold disappointments in their lives.

Passive aggressive male bosses, physically aggressive male colleagues, wheedling male underlings ready to exploit a woman’s natural generosity, estranged husbands who value some abstract definition of personal freedom over sucking up their familial obligations – they’re all here, and they’re all ugly. The film asks how far scientific endeavour should stretch, but also whether progress should be at the expense of perceived responsibilities that have for so long been entrenched in the way society functions. Little Joe begins as a dryly comic story, becomes a strange and scary one, and then ends up being really rather sad.

Published 18 Feb 2020

Tags: Ben Whishaw Emily Beecham Jessica Hausner Little Joe

Anticipation.

Jessica Hausner hasn’t really made a bad film, so reason to be hopeful for this one.

Enjoyment.

A weirder, subtler film than its surface suggests.

In Retrospect.

A real thinker. And Beecham is very deserving of her Best Actress gong from Cannes 2019.

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