LITTLE JOE movie poster | ©2019 Magnolia Pictures

LITTLE JOE movie poster | ©2019 Magnolia Pictures

Rating: Unrated
Stars: Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox, Kit Connor, Lindsay Duncan
Writers: Jessica Hausner and Geraldine Bajard
Director: Jessica Hausner
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Release Date: December 6, 2019

LITTLE JOE, from its logline, sounds like it’s going to be a science-bound riff on LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. In the loosest sense, it is, in that it’s about a plant that wants to take over the world by influencing humans. LITTLE JOE winds up more closely resembling INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, with people beginning to act not quite like themselves.

Under Jessica Hausner’s direction, LITTLE JOE is never less than artful. The shot compositions, the use of colors, and even the musical cues are all much more handsome and controlled than we often get in the low-budget sci-fi/social horror genre. Hausner has also assembled an ace cast, and keeps things moving throughout.

However, something else we don’t get that often in the low-budget sci-fi/social horror genre is what feels like a lack of awareness of other stories tackling the same general ideas. Hausner and her co-writer Geraldine Bajard appear to want to keep us guessing as to what’s actually going on. The problem is that LITTLE JOE isn’t psychologically astute or scary enough for us to want to play along all the way through.

Alice (Emily Beecham) is a scientist whose skill at breeding plants has launched her into the upper echelon of the company she works for. She’s developed a new species of flower that is intended to emit something that is a mood elevator in humans. When colleague Bella (Kerry Fox) insists that exposure to the plants has caused behavioral changes in her beloved dog, Alice dismisses it. But after Alice breaches protocol by bringing one of the plants home with her as a gift for her teenaged son Joe (Kit Connor), she starts to wonder about changes she perceives in her child. Since Alice has become so absorbed in her work, Joe has felt increasingly neglected. Is the way he’s acting now just normal adolescence, or is he being influenced by the flower, which Alice has dubbed Little Joe?

This doesn’t entirely go where we may expect. Despite what can best be described as flute scares – the audio equivalent of a cat scare, except it’s a sudden blast from a flute – there isn’t that much real horror onscreen. There is conceptual, philosophical horror, with questions about the meaning of happiness, love, free will, and more, but this is undercut by LITTLE JOE’s refusal to give anybody enough personal quirks for us to notice much difference.

There are also some details that feel wrong. Why does everybody at Alice’s workplace start calling the whole species of plant “Little Joe,” when that’s the nickname she’s come up with for the one she’s got at home? Why is Alice concerned about inhaling whatever the plants exude when she’s in the lab, but okay with the a grown plant flourishing in her house, where no one wears a protective breath mask? Moreover, since the plants were bred to have a psychotropic effect on humans, why do uninfected people immediately discount the possibility that it’s doing just that?

It’s as if LITTLE JOE might be intended as parody, except the targets are unclear. From some of the dialogue and from the closing-credits song, the filmmakers may be most interested in discussing the consequences of trying to sell happiness as a commodity. This doesn’t feel like any part of the movie’s main thrust, though. What we get is a lot of gorgeous set pieces that tell a story, but one that comes off as neither new nor urgent.

This reviewer feels duty-bound to report that Beecham took home the Cannes Film Festival Best Actress Award for the movie, and director Hausner was nominated for the Palme d’Or. This means that people of good taste and great achievement love LITTLE JOE, which should absolutely be taken into account. They are clearly seeing it from another angle. Or perhaps it’s just that we’ve been sprayed by different plants.

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