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Little Joe

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday Mar 10, 2020
'Little Joe'
'Little Joe'  

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Jessica Hausner's sci-fi thriller "Little Joe" is, in terms of plot, a cutting from the classic film "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" that never quite feels like it's taken root. That said, Hausner uses what looks to be a limited budget to good effect, getting creative with camerawork and the film's eerie, nerve-shattering soundtrack.

Commercial botanical researcher Alice Woodard (Emily Beecham) is working against the clock to produce a new kind of houseplant that will give its owners pleasure by releasing a pollen that activates the brain's pleasure centers in a manner much akin to the effects of oxytocin. To achieve the desired effect, she had taken some virological shortcuts in the genetic engineering of the plant — and may have inadvertently created a pathological response that spreads like a disease among those who come into contact with the flowers of the plant, which she has named "Little Joe" in honor of her son (Kit Connor).

The naming is a sweet gesture, and also something of an apology from a single mother whose focus on work leaves her teenaged boy unattended too much of the time. But Alice is far too ambitious and driven to change her ways — even as Joe tries to maneuver her into a relationship with work colleague Chris (Ben Whishaw). The only real alternative for poor young Joe is to move in with his father, Ivan (Sebastian Hülk), but he doesn't want to do that because the old man is just too... well, different from normal people. (We have to take his word for this, since Ivan's role is tiny and he's not noticeably an oddball.)

But if Ivan seems strange, so does Joe — after he gets a noseful of the genetically engineered plant's addictive pollen, that is. Suddenly, Joe is acting in a manner that recalls the Stepford Wives: Pleasant, slightly sinister, and utterly hollow. When Joe starts to involve his classmates, getting them hooked on the plant's sweet-smelling pollen, Alice manages not to notice... but her co-worker Bella (Kerry Fox) does. Of course, no one listens to Bella because — as Chirs, who might also be comprised, is careful to point out — she once suffered from "burnout," which turns out to be code for "had a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide." With her own son now an agent for the plant's agenda of world dominion, will Alice finally wake up to the danger? Or will she put her career ahead of all else until it's too late?

The film's not-so-subtle political messaging extends to the plants, too, of course — but not quite in the way that "Invasion of the Body Snatcher"'s Cold War paranoia did. In the 1956 original (and the 1978 follow-up), ordinary people were converted into operatives for a plant-based alien species that procreated with the use of "pods," replicating their human victims and replacing them with passionless duplicates, as America once feared that "commies" were replacing patriots.

"Little Joe" takes the same general idea and gives it a not-entirely-successful twist: A whole crop of the Little Joe plants, with their bright red flowers, manages to poison and destroy an adjacent crop of more innocuous blue flowers. What's more, Little Joe — the characters refer to the entire plant strain as a single entity, for some reason — also rewires the human brain so that the plant's agenda (survival and reproduction) becomes the overriding concern for those the plant's pollen seduces, to the exclusion of self, children, or anything else. The specter of 21st Century Global Authoritarianism has officially become a movie monster. The true horror lies not in the takeover and discarding of democratic norms (that is, the freedom of individuals to be individuals and not drones operating in concert for the benefit of a hierarchy), but rather in the way the film's co-opted people so closely resemble their earlier, non-pollen infested selves. As one character, spilling the beans in what turns out to be a satire of the "villain explains all" trope, puts it: "You'll hardly even notice."

There are times when you wonder whether Hausner's camera is also commenting on the totalitarian state, starting with the opening shot, in which a rotating security camera scopes out a growing lab with a vertiginous, 360-degree pan. Later, the camera's gaze, overseen by cinematographer Martin Gschlacht, takes on a more detached character, as Hausner slowly, slowly pans across her characters during conversations that are both expository and almost painfully mundane. But the camera's unsettling choreography takes place in an environment filled with candy-colored sets and props; people in this cinematic universe wear lab coats that are dyed the same hue as Necco wafers, while the cantina at their research facility offers slabs of purple cake to its hungry workers. Meantime, the film's score is filled with electronic screeching that veers between Japanese flute, deranged strings, and the barking of dog packs. The visuals will unsettle, but the music (if you want to call it that) out and out alarms.

In its lean, slightly precious aesthetic and its hermetic (and stifling) quality, this is one hothouse of a movie, feeling like an art hour indie while also sticking to the outlines of horror / sci-fi scrips from decades past. It's a fascinating exercise, but in the end it's not much of a movie.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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