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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Little Joe

Distinctive and beguiling, this Cannes Film Festival award-winning sci-fi/horror film follows the eerie repercussions of a new mood-altering plant.
By Sarah Ward
July 01, 2021
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By Sarah Ward
July 01, 2021
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Pipes blow gently. The camera swirls. Rows of plants fill the screen. Some are leafy and flowery as they reach for the sky; others are just stems topped with closed buds. Both types of vegetation are lined up in boxes in an austere greenhouse. Soon, another shoot of green appears among them. Plant breeder Alice (Emily Beecham, Cruella) is cloaked in a lab coat far paler than any plant, but the symbolism is evident — and, although audiences don't know it yet, her cropped red hair resembles the crimson flowers that'll blossom in her genetically engineered new type of flora, too. "The aim has been to create a plant with a scent that makes its owner happy," she says. She explains that most research in her field has involved cultivating greenery that requires less human interaction; however, her new breed does the opposite. This species needs more watering and more protection from the elements, and responds to touch and talk. In return, it emits a scent that kickstarts the human hormone oxytocin when inhaled. Linked to motherhood and bonding, that response will make everyone "love this plant like your own child," Alice advises, beaming like a proud parent.

So starts Little Joe, which shares its name with the vegetation in question — a "mood-lifting, anti-depressant, happy plant," Alice's boss (David Wilmot, Calm with Horses) boasts. She's borrowed her son's (Kit Connor, Rocketman) moniker for her new baby, although she gives it more attention than the flesh-and-blood teen, especially with the push to get it to market speeding up. The clinical gaze favoured by Austrian filmmaker Jessica Hausner (Amour fou) is telling, though. The eerie tone of the Japanese-style, flute- and percussion-heavy score sets an unsettling mood as well. And, there's something not quite right in the overt eagerness of Alice's colleague Chris (Ben Whishaw, Fargo), and in the way that everyone dismisses the one naysayer, Bella (Kerry Fox, Top End Wedding), who has just returned to work after a mental health break. 

Making her first English-language feature, Hausner layers this tension across every image, sound and interaction within Little Joe. Dread, too. Agitation blooms inescapably in a movie that quickly becomes a disquieting sci-fi/horror masterwork. Like many features in the genre, this is a film about possibilities and consequences, creation and costs, and happiness and sacrifices. It's about both daring to challenge and dutifully abiding by conformity as well, and about the societal need not just to thrive and survive, but to prosper and propagate by creating order out of chaos.  And yet, as recognisable as these themes and ideas are, Little Joe is always its own beast. Aspects of Frankenstein are at play, and The Day of the Triffids, and even Side Effects. The film also has much to say about motherhood, the expectations that come with it, and the way that women are supposed to acquiesce to everything around them. But as anyone familiar with Mary Shelley's iconic work knows, combining familiar elements can give birth to an intriguing new entity that's much more than just the sum of its components.

Little Joe, the plant, is alive — obviously. As it scent wafts through nostrils, it evokes change. Like Frankenstein's creature, it yearns for love and attention. It doesn't scream, but it still clamours to be cared for. As Alice notes in the aforementioned opening scene, her creation is specifically designed to respond to human affection. It reacts when it's nurtured, though, rather than rankling against its absence. And, as Alice begins to discover slowly but noticeably, that response has repercussions. Co-scripting with Géraldine Bajard, who she also worked with on Amour fou and Lourdes, Hausner tinkers with a classic tale to make several statements. She ponders the advertising-reinforced need for bliss that we're all meant to covet, and the way we're conditioned to accept progress and advancement — and to actively work towards it — no matter the ramifications. She also interrogates wellness bandwagons, purportedly easy cures and profiting from the quest for happiness, as well as the notion that normality and being like everyone else is worth striving for. The more that Little Joe examines the impact that Alice's work has upon her home life, too, the more it explores the pressures and demands that come with balancing personal and professional spheres.

As a science fiction film, this savvily unnerving creation has much germinating within its frames. As a horror movie, it unpacks existential and primal worries with slickness and smarts. Hausner also calls upon aspects of The Little Shop of Horrors and The Invasion of the Body Snatchers — and, although it premiered at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, before the pandemic, Little Joe slides into the cohort of contagion-focused flicks that contemplate the way infections spread, evolve and reshape everything in their image. Plus, this is a feature about awakenings, as Alice cottons on to exactly what she's created. Its aesthetic might be sparse — whites, greys and glassy surfaces punctuated by small bursts of colour, including from Little Joe's petals and the pink lights needed to make them blossom — but its musings and impact are anything but. Indeed, if there's any stylistic flourish that epitomises the film overall, it's Martin Gschlacht's exacting and controlled cinematography. In his camera placement and shot composition, he peered just as meticulously in the exceptional Australian horror film Goodnight Mommy, and he demonstrates the festering unease that lingers in icy restraint here once again.

Watching Alice navigate all of the above, it should come as no surprise that Beecham has earned awards for her performance — the Best Actress prize at Cannes, in fact. She plays a creator forced to face the reality of her dreams, achievements and choices; a mother confronted with changes in both of her children; and a woman weathering the world's expectations. As Alice's status quo crumbles, Beecham's quiet distress and sprouting doubts are palpable, and she couldn't be more crucial to the film. Hers isn't an overt portrayal, though. Its power grows, fittingly, in a movie that's constantly striking in its premise, tone, look, emotions and concepts. Little Joe's audience won't need a plant to alter their mood — this distinctive and beguiling standout manages that all by itself.

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