Little Joe Review
Sci-fi has a bit of a green thumb. From the Triffids of John Wyndham’s pivotal novel, to the plant pods from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors and the mutated flora and fauna of Annihilation, pernicious plants crop up over and over again, tapping into an ongoing fear of the consequences of messing around with Mother Nature. Austrian auteur Jessica Hausner’s English-language debut takes art house to the greenhouse with a decidedly more muted approach to the killer plant movie. But while Little Joe does achieve a cold menace that might make you reconsider your collection of house plants, it keeps its characters at arm’s length and its thematic questions only half-asked.
Despite the skepticism of her superiors, biologist Alice Woodward (Emily Beecham) has been developing something revolutionary: a plant that makes you happy. Her’s is a cold, clinical world that could certainly use some cheering up. The camera sweeps above the stark white laboratory to reveal rows upon rows of innocent-looking seedlings and observes the mint green-clad scientists from a reserved, analytical distance. Lab partner Chris (Ben Whishaw, in one of his most weasel-like performances) tries to bridge that distance, asking Alice out for a drink several times without much success. Alice is far too occupied with her two children: Joe (Rocketman’s Kit Connor), verging on adolescence, and Little Joe, her beloved genetically-modified plant, verging on literally outgrowing her. She tends to both of them lovingly but after Joe inhales his namesake’s perfume and his personality transforms overnight, she begins to fear the mind-altering powers of her supposed miracle plant. Is Joe’s new teenage rebelliousness just what adolescent happiness looks like, or is this change something far more sinister?
The Little Joes are undeniably creepy, with their cherry red tendrils that give them the appearance of a forest of furious sea anemones. Particularly tense are scenes in the greenhouse at night, the warming lamps hovering above the rows of Joes emitting an oppressively lurid pink that seems to fill the air with poison. The jolting score, taken from pieces by avant-garde composer Teiji Ito, also lends a sense of malevolence, with its clashes of wood against metal and shrieking pipes. But while Hausner and cinematographer Martin Gschlacht’s vision is striking, we’re kept too far removed from the film’s thinly drawn characters to engage emotionally, meaning the film’s ambiguity is more aggravating than intriguing.
Her performance as Alice won Emily Beecham a Best Actress award from Cannes, and she slips seamlessly into this off-kilter world with her pale, doll-like face and strawberry blonde bowl-cut. But she barely overcomes being lumbered with clunky, often expository dialogue. There is little in the script that resembles naturalistic human interaction, and yet it isn’t stylistic or knowingly hokey enough to feel like a consciously campy genre homage. Hausner signposts the parallel between Alice as a mother and a creator and the codependency she craves in both roles, but doesn’t seem interested in the unraveling of that dichotomy, nor in following through on a plot that positions mood-enhancing medication as dangerous. The film isn’t explicitly anti-anti-depressants, and yet there’s an oddly conservative undertone that leaves a sour taste.
Favouring what feels like obstinate obliqueness over genuine subtlety, Little Joe might have made an eerie short film, but struggles to thrive as much more than a deftly crafted but stilted and emotionally stunted slice of sort-of sci-fi. A plane of greenhouse glass separates us from it, with Hausner unwilling to even chip away at the surface, let alone shatter it.
Little Joe opens in select UK cinemas on February 21.