Alice, a single mother, is a dedicated senior plant breeder at a corporation engaged in developing new species. Against company policy, she takes one home as a gift for her teenage son and names it after him but soon starts fearing it.
‘Little Joe’ is an odd little film from Jessica Hausner, centering on a botanist, Alice (Emily Beecham), who has developed a new plant that starts to exhibit an unusual power. The plant Alice is working on is believed to make its owners happy but there are unintended consequences which start to become apparent when those exposed to its pollen undergo a change in their personality. It’s a cold, clinical film with a purposefully distant approach, with much of it set in the cold, inhumane environment of the laboratory where the plants grow and our main characters work.
‘Little Joe’ is almost a stealth piece of science fiction, riffing on the same kind of themes about people changing after interacting with a foreign object, but it plays everything low key and subverts expectations as to how you’d expect this story to play out. It’s got a tinny score that creates an eerie atmosphere and Hausner’s shooting style is very effective, often using unusual angles and shooting scenes with characters out of frame, as if to really drill home the off kilter nature of the story (the film is surprisingly funny as well, also in an off kilter kind of way). This distant approach can make it hard to fully invest, but it’s an intriguing film nonetheless with a lot of interesting themes bubbling under the surface.
Emily Beecham plays the lead and she’s really good and it wouldn’t surprise me if she starts to really break out in the next two or three years. In ‘Little Joe’, she plays a single mother trying to split her time between her demanding job and bringing up her son Joe (Kit Connor), which is becoming increasingly challenging as he grows up. This is complicated further after she brings one of the plants home and Joe interacts with it, and she starts to question whether the plant is to blame for his changing personality or whether he’s just growing up. Themes of motherhood and the plant represent Alice’s fears that she’s losing her relationship with her son as he grows up, yet others at work are changing too and Alice is caught between believing what she’s experiencing or putting it down to paranoia. It’s a delicate balance and Beecham really sells the difficulty of the position Alice finds herself in. Out of an enjoyable supporting cast, Ben Whishaw is a standout as a coworker always on the verge of crossing the line.
I wouldn’t go as far to say I really liked ‘Little Joe’ as something about its distant approach kept me at arm’s length, but it’s an intriguing little drama and Emily Beecham’s compelling performance alone is enough to keep you invested in the drama.
Directed By: Jessica Hausner
Starring: Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox, Kit Connor, David Wilmot and Lindsay Duncan