By Thomas Puhr.
“Who can prove the genuineness of feelings?” a scientist asks in Little Joe (2019). “Moreover, who cares?” These startling questions cut right to the heart of Jessica Hausner’s curious science-fiction film, which centers around a genetically-engineered flower that releases happiness-inducing chemicals. Are these feelings the plant elicits totally artificial, or are they not all that different from the chemical reactions in our brains that “manufacture” similar emotions?
After characters who have inhaled the mysterious fragrance begin to change for the worse, it becomes clear that Hausner aligns with the former camp. Scenes in which they look and act essentially the same but somehow seem different call Invasion of the Body Snatchers to mind. When the “Little Joe” flower blooms and emits its mist-like spray into unsuspecting victims’ faces, it’s hard not to think of the little pods sprouting their flesh-toned petals in Philip Kaufman’s 1978 iteration of the classic story. There’s even the requisite “act like you’re one of the infected so you don’t get attacked” sequence.
If Kaufman’s remake of Don Siegel’s 1956 original touched on post-60s disillusionment, then this riff on the story addresses the struggles of juggling work and home, especially for single parents. Scientist Alice Woodard (Emily Beecham) is mother to both the titular flower and her human son, Joe (Kit Connor). Ambiguous dialogue sometimes makes it unclear to which “Joe” she refers, further underlining her efforts to balance professional and personal commitments. Bella (Kerry Fox), who dutifully fills the “I know something is wrong, but no one will listen to me” character slot, puts it most bluntly: “Which of your children will you choose?”
Hausner’s mise-en-scène further emphasizes the notion that Alice’s creation is like another child, and I was reminded of how language reinforces this perception; how often, after all, do we refer to a work project as someone’s “brain child”? Cinematographer Martin Gschlacht’s vibrant color schemes connect the Joes, the plant’s neon-red petals complementing the boy’s red sneakers. The greenhouse in the blandly-named “Planthouse” facility, a marvelous feat of production design, calls a womb to mind: often bathed in a red light, its interior must be kept uncomfortably hot for the growing flowers to thrive.
The candy-colored, borderline twee visuals also underline the vapidity of the characters’ work environment. Everything feels a little too tidy in this world, too neat. Planthouse’s office facilities seem to have been decorated from a rejected IKEA catalogue, and there’s something almost sickening about how meticulously the foods in its cafeteria are wrapped and arranged. Sleek white tables, mint-green lab coats, and pomegranate latex gloves betray a sterility masked as hip modernity.
This prepackaged aesthetic carries over to Alice’s home life; one visual motif involves the glossy, colorful takeout food boxes from which the mother and son constantly eat. Contrast these details with an outdoor scene in which Joe and his mostly-absent father go fishing (when the son brings a fish he caught back to his mother for dinner, she reacts like she hasn’t seen one before), and it’s obvious which of the two environments seems more authentic.
Those infected (for lack of a better term) become obsessed with tending to “Little Joe,” at the cost of their human relationships. As their addiction to its artificial happiness increases, their disconnection from other humans increases. Hausner incorporates a simple, but clever camera movement to emphasize this emotional distance: during many two-person conversations, the camera slowly pulls in until the characters on either end of the frame disappear, leaving only bodiless voices on the soundtrack.
Despite its wild premise (along with Peter Strickland’s In Fabric, 2019 has seen a resurgence in the “killer innocuous object” sub-subgenre), Little Joe feels oddly dull. The issue can be traced (at least partially) to how we don’t get enough time with the characters before their ominous transformations. Alice, her son, and her coworkers (including a severely underused Ben Whishaw) are a bit vapid to begin with, so their metamorphosis into flower-obsessed zombies loses much of its punch. A truly strange final line of dialogue, which I dare not reveal, only made me wish the rest of the film were as audacious.
And it’s a shame, really, because Little Joe has a lot going for it. The production and costume design are a pleasure to soak in, sampled Teiji Ito compositions create palpable unease, and the story takes a common premise into an intriguing, modern direction. Hausner’s visual style, which cross-pollinates (forgive the pun) Claire Denis’ detached sterility with Wes Anderson’s pastel-infused color palette, beguiles and disconcerts in equal measure. But all of these elements never quite coalesce into something that lingers in the mind long after the end credits. For a film about humankind’s potential demise, it just doesn’t feel like there’s much at stake here.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.