A B-movie science-thriller made with art-house movie aestetics, Little Joe is a weird beast of a film.
Emily Beecham stars as Alice, a geneticist working on a designer flower that has the ability to use scent to elevate moods. Alice has a ruthless streak, sabotaging other researcher’s plants to service her own, racing to be ready for an uncoming plant fair. When people working with the plant, named Little Joe after Alice’s son, start behaving differently, she and a co-worker suspect the flower is capable of more than just making you feel happy.
Acclaimed Austrian director Jessica Hausner has picked an odd film for her first English-language feature and has filled it with a strong cast. Ben Whishaw plays Alice’s co-worker, a potential love interest, Lindsay Duncan plays Alice’s therapist, Kerry Fox a suspicious co-worker and Kit Connor (so brilliant as the young Elton John in Rocketman) plays her son, Joe.
Thematically it’s a bit Jurassic Park meets Little Shop of Horrors – life finds a way, and Little Joe is practically screaming “Feed Me!” all the time. It would have been a more entertaining endeavour if it had leaned more in either direction. Instead it comes off like a Doctor Who story from the 70s.
Stylishly filmed, the colour-palate and production design are truly stunning to behold; everything is coloured to accentuate Beecham’s auburn hair and Little Joe’s red flowers. Hausner enjoys long shots and camera moves that stray past the action, letting some shocking moments happen just off-screen.
Sadly the script (by Hausner and Géraldine Bajard) isn’t as clever as the subject matter it portrays or as the audience watching. There is little in the way of twists the audience hasn’t already seen coming. The script is littered with people talking about their co-workers behaving “differently” but we didn’t spend enough time with any of them to know if that’s true. Every performance is so staged and unnatural it’s impossible to tell. The death of one character is so oddly staged it elicited laughs. The screaching sound design of Little Joe’s menace sounded more like audio feedback (and was murder on the ears).
Hausner called the film a ‘black comedy’ but it’s not black enough, or comedic enough. In fact Little Joe is not quite enough of any one thing to make a lasting impact. It’s tense but not frightening enough to work as a thriller, camp but not zany enough to be a cult hit. Little Joe ends up just being forgetable.
By Chad Armstrong
Little Joe plays the BFI LFF.