Little Joe (12A) | Close-Up Film Review
Austrian director Jessica Hausner’s first English language film has a strong cast and an intriguing, genre defying story, which combines science fiction with psychological drama in a most unusual way.
Single mother Alice (Emily Beecham) is a botanist at a top secret plant breeding facility, where she is developing a new flower, whose perfume will make people happy. Against company policy she takes one home and names it Little Joe after her teenage son Joe (Kit Connor). But the “Little Joe” species starts to have a strange effect on those who tend it, forcing them to change personality and concentrate their attention on it rather than their fellow beings. Fellow scientist Bella’s beloved dog is accidentally locked overnight in the greenhouse where the “Little Joe” plant grows and Bella (Kerry Fox) swears he is no longer her dog. The formerly placid Joe starts to become insolent and opinionated towards his mother, while Alice’s assistant Chris (Ben Wishaw), who was previously making unsuccessful attempts to court her, now seems more interested in caring for the plant.
However Chris could have just got discouraged by Alice’s cool response to his advances, Joe could just be becoming a normally stroppy adolescent and Bella, who has a history of mental disturbance, could be having another turn. While Alice too is seeing a therapist (Lindsay Duncan) to help her cope with single parenthood. So do we have an attention hungry triffid here or is Alice imagining it all?
One of the strengths of the film is that it is quite exceptionally beautiful to look at – credit cinematographer Martin Gschlacht and production designer Katharina Wöppermann. The clinical, dazzling white of the laboratory and the facility’s cafeteria and the enormous greenhouses, where the contrastingly blood red “Little Joe” plants move and stir. The outside locations too have both an almost antiseptic cleanliness, as in Emily’s period house, which is impeccably decorated and furnished in a modern minimalist way but with colours, when there are colours, which are breathtakingly brilliant and jewel like. It’s a visual beauty which is not merely decorative but enhances the unsettling nature of the storytelling.
Distributed as it is by the BFI, this UK/Austrian/German co-production is heading for the arthouse circuit. But unlike many other arthouse products, despite being very stylishly directed, it never loses sight of the fact that it is telling a story.