GORE IN THE STORE
LITTLE JOE ***
Directed by Jessica Hausner.
Starring Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox.
Science-fiction drama, UK,105 mins, Cert 12.
Released on DVD, Blu-Ray, BFI Player, iTunes, Amazon Prime and Curzon Home Cinema on 15th June
Right from its opening hypnotic overheard camera swirls, there is something immediately unnatural about Jessica Hausner’s strange and smartly subdued science-fiction feature LITTLE JOE. Much like the genetically modified plant that lends the film its title, it is clinical and distinctive, all the while never truly revealing what may be going on underneath its surface.
Emily Beecham stars as Alice, a genetic breeder in London who creates a plant designed to make people happy by releasing oxytocin via its pollen - providing said plant is properly watered, kept warm and spoken to. Much like a child, it seemingly craves love, creating a story parallel with Alice’s own life and relationship with her son (Kit Connor), after whom the plant was named.
When Alice gifts one of the plants to Joe and his behaviour becomes marginally abnormal, she starts to suspect the roots and flower has a greater power than she initially fathomed.
This initial plot point suggests we’re heading into horror territory and the projected story arc looks like it may be a familiar one, with an air of the work of Peter Strickland (and in particular the recent IN FABRIC) about it. Hausner beautifully toys with this idea, utilising a brilliant sound design to unsettle the nerves, camera tracking that literally strikes through the middle of conversations and plot lines that suggest Little Joe has sinister intent – other plants and animals die in its presence, while Alice’s co-worker Bella (Kerry Fox), has an ever changing opinion of Little Joe that may or may not be down to her own mental health history.
Yet mercifully this is not a ‘killer plant’ B-movie but an intriguing musing on mental health happiness (if we’re made to feel happy, are we truly so?) and family relationships as ambiguity hangs in the air - like an un-ingested pollen - right through to the films very final frame.
It’s clinical colour palette and production design is deliberately alienating, but Beecham brings the required humanity and humour to the lead role serving perfectly as the audience’s eyes, ears and, possibly, nose, ground the film in something relatable to the real world.
The slow-burning story may be slightly over-extended but it’s an unsettling, interesting and never entirely predictable production.