Little Joe


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Little Joe
"If you're going to do science fiction, you really need to get the science right, because otherwise all you're doing is attacking straw men." | Photo: Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

First things first: Jessica Hausner's cautionary tale about genetic engineering gone mad looks beautiful. It seems to have been approached first and foremost as an aesthetic exercise and its combination of graceful design and lucid cinematography is a real asset for a film whose central theme is beguilement. No doubt some people will be so entranced by it that they will daydream through the whole thing and come away not having noticed how much it gets wrong. This in itself is more in keeping with what the film is trying to say than anything expressed by the narrative.

That narrative concerns Alice (Emily Beecham), a horticulturalist who, it soon becomes clear, has taken some shortcuts in the development of a flower designed to make people happy. Early on, against regulations, she removes one of these flowers from the lab to give it to her son Joe (Kit Connor), hence it getting the nickname 'little Joe'. Subsequent events lead to concerns that the flower may influence the minds of those who get too close to it in ways beyond what was intended. Cue paranoia, angst over scientific ethics and supposedly deep questions about what it means to be human.

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Little Joe is one of those films likely to be referred to as 'elevated science fiction'. It's certainly self-conscious about its relationship to predecessors like Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, gently mocking the intensity of the paranoid scenarios they depict yet failing to match their intelligence. If you're going to do science fiction, you really need to get the science right, because otherwise all you're doing is attacking straw men. Here the film fails at every turn.

Let's start with the flower. It's something totally new, we're told - a plant with the capacity to interact with the brain and create a feeling of happiness. Like, um, opium or cannabis. We're told that it works by stimulating the production of oxytocin, which is described as a special hormone that helps mothers bond to children, pointedly ignoring its role in every other kind of human emotional bonding. We're warned that it could produce novel allergens, an extremely rare phenomenon, whilst much bigger risks are ignored, nobody bothers with face masks until late in the game, little care is taken about skin contact and there seems to be no established protocol for dealing with contamination. Given the shoddiness of this approach it's amazing that the scientists have succeeded in developing anything, but when we're told that nobody has ever changed a plant this much before, anyone with a modicum of knowledge about biology will tell you that's bananas.

It gets sillier as the story develops. There's a lot of woolly talk about the dangers of messing with nature which, alongside the protracted explanations of very basic scientific principles, just doesn't make for convincing dialogue in this context. At one point, the assembled scientists argue that it's 'unnatural' to make experimental plants sterile - a practice maintained for very good reasons for several decades now - and far too much comes to rest on this ludicrous premise. Perhaps if it were served with a bit of self awareness and humour, this could still be entertaining, but it's all terribly po-faced.

Contributing to this rather prim atmosphere are the highly stylised performances (Kerry Fox does good work with the only character allowed to break free of this) and the glacial pacing. A story that might have made for an effective short film is heavily padded to the point where one has to wonder how its protagonists ever got this far in their line of work when it takes them so long to notice things.

Little Joe is a terrible waste of potential. The leading cast members have all proven their talents elsewhere but get little to do. The technical work is excellent but deserves a much stronger showcase. There's a stench of Luddism about the whole thing, minus the political sophistication, and the end product is derivative and dull.

Reviewed on: 09 Nov 2019
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A genetically engineered plant scatters its seeds and seems to cause uncanny changes on living creatures. The afflicted appear strange, as if they were replaced - especially for those, who are close to them. Or is it all just imagination?
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Director: Jessica Hausner

Writer: Géraldine Bajard, Jessica Hausner

Starring: Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Leanne Best, Lindsay Duncan, Kerry Fox, David Wilmut

Year: 2019

Runtime: 105 minutes

Country: Austria, UK, Germany

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