“Bold ideas with boring execution.”
The mint-green lab coats donned by the botanists in Little Joe immediately create a sense of unease. This ever so slight change in the universally recognisable and authoritative white lab coat gives the impression that this lab-experiment-gone-wrong story will be somewhat different from its genre kin. But you would be mistaken. Little Joe – Jessica Hausner’s first English-language feature – is not the beautiful and mysterious creature it wants to be. Rather, it is a malnourished flower with no discernible scent, however strong its roots may be.
Alice (rigidly played by Emily Beecham) is hard at work at Planthouse Biotechnologies. She has genetically engineered a plant that produces a happiness-inducing scent. The catch is that you have to affectionately care for the plant to reap its joyful rewards. This is a sweet idea until you realise that divorcée Alice is not the most attentive mother to her pre-teen son, Joe (Kit Connor). She wants to be Joe’s mother only because that is what is expected of her. Her true baby is her work, which is why it is no surprise she names her invention Little Joe after her son. Fleeting visits with her therapist (Lindsay Duncan) help very little in dealing with her complicated maternal instincts.
Alice’s love for her work is outstripped only by her pride, which is why she refuses to believe anything is wrong with Little Joe when something strange happens. One of Alice’s colleagues, Bella (Kerry Fox), brings her dog to the lab. The potential consequences of allowing a pet into an active laboratory is entirely lost on the characters – clearly they have not seen enough sci-fi films. The dog is somehow locked in Little Joe’s lab overnight. When Bella arrives the next day, she finds her dog to be behaving unrecognisably. Bella tries to convince Alice of the dangers of Little Joe’s pollen, but her warnings fall on ignorant ears.
These consequences must be dealt with eventually. Alice slowly becomes more convinced of Bella’s warnings when others close to her start to act strangely, too. Her son becomes more insubordinate and at times acts as if he doesn’t recognise his mother at all. Her colleague Chris (Ben Whishaw, a perpetually welcome presence with his puppy-dog eyes), becomes even more flirty and imposing than before. Across the board these performances are bad. The lines are spoken with a rigidity expected during an initial table read. If this was a deliberate choice to present the uncanny symptoms of inhaling Little Joe’s pollen, then it was misguided. The resulting detachment is exacerbated by the supremely immaculate and brightly lit sets. Never does this feel like an authentic world.
This would be a recoverable position had Little Joe established some basic scientific laws regarding the titular plant’s effects. Hausner is trying to convey a message through Little Joe but it is so difficult to comprehend what this is. Thus, the effects that take hold in the likes of Joe and Chris are vague and uncompelling. Obviously Little Joe isn’t the first sci-fi flick to lack believable, or even comprehensible, science. But the joylessness of the viewing experience fails to distract from these glaring flaws. There is simply very little fun to be had with Little Joe. Perhaps each screening should be accompanied by a real Little Joe by the entrance to mitigate this issue.
Ultimately, Little Joe plays like a below average episode of Black Mirror; its structure and style align with the weakest offerings of the now-Netflix TV show. Little Joe can identify interesting talking points but fumbles quickly when it comes to taking them into its own hands. The ideas and humour could have done with a bit more Miracle-Gro before they were presented at the flower show.
Dir: Jessica Hausner
Prod: Bruno Wagner, Bertrand Faivre, Philippe Bober, Martin Gschlacht, Jessica Hausner, Gerardine O’Flynn
Cast: Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kit Connor, Kerry Fox, Linsday Duncan
Release Date: TBA