As Little Joe hits theaters this week, we’ve resurfaced our review from the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, where the film first premiered.
If the Netflix series Black Mirror is “what if technology, but too much,” Jessica Hausner’s faintly sci-fi vision Little Joe is a biological companion.
The “Little Joe” is a new breed of flower developed by Alice Woodard (Emily Beecham), named after her son (Kit Connor), which emits a scent that induces happiness. In exchange for the aroma, the plant demands love — it must be talked to and tended to. As the date of Little Joe’s public debut at the Flower Fair approaches, however, something about the plant starts to seem a little off. Alice has cut a few scientific corners in order to ensure Little Joe is ready, as well as make the plant sterile and limit its allergens. It’s unnatural, one of her more antsy colleagues claims, and it seems that the plant is starting to fight back.
Any similarities to Little Shop of Horrors are superseded by similarities to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, as the story becomes less about a mutated plant and about the lengths people will go to in order to achieve happiness, real or manufactured.
Though the plant breeders are required to wear masks in the greenhouses until the plant is determined to be completely safe, some of Alice’s are colleagues end up breathing in Little Joe’s pollen anyway. The plant makes those who smell it happy, but that happiness appears to come at a cost — those who breathe in Little Joe’s pollen cease feeling any other emotions and become fiercely (and violently) protective of the flower.
Alice is reluctant to believe any of it until she notices similar changes in her son, for whom she’d brought home a plant for him to keep. He’s growing distant, becoming less willing to share anything about his life, or to talk at all. He even asks if he can go live with his father, for whom he’d previously expressed nothing but disdain. Is Little Joe actually affecting Joe, or are they simply growing apart as Joe enters his teenage years?
The gaslighting of Alice — her supposedly affected coworkers attempt to assuage her fears, and her talks with her therapist (Lindsey Duncan) aren’t of too much help, as she tries to talk herself out of and then into theories about the plant — is deliciously torturous to watch. Beecham, who won the top acting prize at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival for her role, is terrific, switching between conviction and doubt with frightening ease, and Ben Whishaw is well cast against his usual sweet type (he’s the voice of Paddington Bear, after all) as an office nice guy who grows increasingly sinister.
That sense of agitation is compounded by Hausner’s careful deployment of Little Joe — the flower blooms with an audible crackle. The scariest moments in the film (which banks on overall creepiness rather than jump scares) are those in which Little Joe’s bud is closed when a character looks away, and in full bloom by the time they look back.
The film is also impressively sparse, as characters only frequent one or two locations, and shots often simply pan across the room, prompting viewers to do some of their own detective work. Add a score by Katharina Wöppermann that contains slams, groaning strings, and the barking of dogs, and you get a potent recipe for chaos.
There is one thing, however, that keeps Little Joe from being a total slam dunk. Broadly speaking, the idea that people might be willing to take fake happiness over real sorrow is a compelling one, but Little Joe equates that to the use of antidepressants in a way that feels misguided. The use of pharmaceuticals to manage moods — here the use of Little Joe to feel happiness — is depicted as making people less than their true selves, and so protective of the catalyst of that change as to become violent.
The film pivots away from that idea, eventually, instead focusing on Alice’s uncertainties as a mother, but the metaphorical seed has already been planted.
Little Joe is not yet slated for release