Synopsis: A plant breeder at a corporation engaged in developing new species takes one home as a gift for her teenage son and finds her newest creation blossoming into something sinister.
Stars: Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox, Kit Connor, Phénix Brossard, Leanne Best, Lindsay Duncan
Director: Jessica Hausner
Running Length: 105 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: Though I was a pretty good gardener when I was growing up, try as I might I just cannot keep a plant alive in my apartment. Perhaps it’s because we don’t have control over the heat and being on the top floor it tends to rise, making our place nice and toasty during the winter but a steam box during the summer. Normally, this would be good for plant growing but the Midwest greens that I’ve been trying to keep alive these past years have just not taken to any kind of tending I’ve tried. I swear they should put up a warning sign about me at my local flower shop, barring any future plant sales.
Watching a movie like Little Joe, it makes me glad my green thumb has turned a rosy shade of pink. This paranoid sci-fi yarn is a neat little corker that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival this year and walked away with a major prize. It was nominated for the Palme d’Or (that went to the excellent Parasite) but did manage to snag Best Actress for its star Emily Beecham. I saw Little Joe without knowing the breadth of its Cannes reach and, in a way, I’m happy I did because I was able to judge the movie and the performance on my own without having that “awards prestige” applying undue influence.
Single mother Alice (Beecham, Hail, Caesar!) has a job as a high-tech botanist working to create a new species of plant designed to induce happiness in all that come in close contact. Her company is pushing their scientific groups to meet a deadline so they can introduce their line of flora at a convention that’s rapidly approaching. With a competitive edge developing between the plant breeders, Alice and her colleague Chris (Ben Whishaw, Skyfall) may have used some questionable methods in their sequencing but with the results so positive, what’s the harm? Dubbing their flower Little Joe after Alice’s son (Kit Connor, Rocketman), the cherry-red flower is indeed alluring and has a strange affect on those that spend an extended amount of time with it.
When Alice breaks protocol and brings a Little Joe home to give to her son, she notices changes in the relationship they used to share. What was once an open and friendly bond has now turned secretive and harsh, with Joe spending more time with friends he introduces to Little Joe and excluding Alice from his conversations. At the same time, a co-worker of Alice’s (Kerry Fox, The Dressmaker) starts to put together that the plant is the cause of shifts in personalities, first in the devoted dog she brings into the laboratory and then in the people she works with daily. Unable to see the connection on the outset, Alice brings her initial fears about Joe’s behavior to her therapist (a serene Lindsay Duncan, About Time) who suggests the paranoia may be linked to a past event Alice has tried to put behind her. The longer Alice waits to take action, though, the less people she’ll have to trust because Little Joe has a secret…and perhaps even a plan to keep anyone quiet who threatens to expose its endgame.
I can say Little Joe reminded me of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and it not be too much of a spoiler, because it’s not that kind of a movie. This isn’t that same type of alien horror film but something manufactured by humans that just happens to bite back. Director Jessica Hausner co-wrote the script with Géraldine Bajard and she’s definitely on to something with her tale of mass-produced happiness that turns deadly. You can easily draw lines between the flower and modern technology. Could be a stretch but sub out Little Joe for a cell phone or any other kind of tech gadget and see if that doesn’t fall in line with the feeling of exclusion Alice falls into when her son and co-workers turn their backs on her.
If only Hausner had found a way to round out the movie with something a little more interesting. I kept waiting for the film to take a left turn and get out of the sane lane but it seemed stubbornly stuck in its course forward and that’s disappointing. Right up until the end, I was almost begging for something other than what was happening to happen just so I could give the movie a higher final score – there just had to be some other way to put a button on this story than what was presented here. It’s a fault in storytelling that became a flat note to end what was otherwise a strong showing.
That’s especially sad because Beecham is so very good as the increasingly addled Alice. When the film begins she’s cool as a cucumber, with her Dorothy Hamill haircut and slightly out of date clothing. (Though the movie is ostensibly set in modern times it looks to the ‘80s and late ‘70s for style inspirations) Giving strong Nicole Kidman vibes, Beecham earns that Best Actress award from the Cannes jury by metering out her unraveling in small ways and never giving over to the huffy puffy hysteria the situation might bring other actresses to. Instead, her reactions are muted shock and an almost instant realization of her part in the problem at hand, never being able to fully absolve herself of what she did to bring about the events of what transpire. Which, come to think of it, may inform the ending that I so desperately didn’t like. In supporting roles, Whishaw is nebbishly fine pining for Alice but it’s Fox who steals the show as an already tightly wound woman who has her coils curled further when she becomes the only voice of reason.
Worth seeing on the big screen if only to see the glorious cinematography from Martin Gschlacht (Goodnight Mommy) of all those dramatic crimson petals set against the sterile confines of a lab setting, Little Joe blooms early but wilts under pressure of an ending that’s too pat. I wonder if Hausner had anything else in mind to bring the movie to a close of if this is what she planned all along, it’s hard to imagine a concept so slow burning for 95 minutes would just throw in the towel so easily in the last ten minutes. Still, I would recommend this based on those 95 minutes because they’re well done. It’s a perfect selection for those that miss the paranoid thrillers so popular in the ‘70s and audiences that appreciate their sci-fi horror on the reserved side.