Alice Woodard (Emily Beecham) is at the forefront of a brand new plant technology, her team creating new life in the shape of an asexual flower that breathes and understands like a human being, and can cheer up its owners just like a good friend by releasing a chemically-altered pollen into the room. Alice loves her work and is extremely pleased with the results she has been getting, though the temperature required to help the flowers prosper means her rival at the laboratory sees his alternative experiment along the same lines wither and die. Still, this does prove her plants, the ones she nicknames after her teenage son (Kit Connor), have what it takes to survive and prosper...
Writer (with Géraldine Bajard) and director Jessica Hausner made her first science fiction movie with Little Joe, a conscious tribute to one of her favourite sci-fi films, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Except she was only really interested in adapting the first half hour, where characters begin to suspect but cannot prove that people around them are changing in ways perceptible only to them, and cannot convince anyone else that their relatives or friends have been replaced with identical impostors. Therefore you would be best not to anticipate a grand showdown at the end where the evil was vanquished, for there were doubts all the way through about the validity of the threat.
It could be that the plant has been such an object of desire for the scientists that it has been having a strange effect on them psychologically rather than physically, and actually there is nothing wrong with them that a sense of perspective could not solve. Yet as an audience, we are trained to look out for evidence that something fantastical is occurring, something menacing, even invasive too, and Hausner was very playful with those feelings to the extent that the film was highly amusing should you adjust to its off-kilter, weirdly parodic tone where the joke was both on the characters and the audience. Imagine she was carefully taking apart what had become a hackneyed genre cliché.
Though she did not have a blockbuster budget, she was wise to use what resources she did have to craft a blankly attractive appearance, seemingly basing her colour scheme around her leading lady's striking, red hair, both complementing and contrasting with it. You could not help but find your eyes drawn to Beecham, since the palette directed us to her slightly outdated hairdo of near-fluorescent amber, and Alice begins to stand out to the other characters as well, though not in the manner she would like. After her colleague Chris (Ben Whishaw) awkwardly asks her out for a drink after work, she initially turns him down, reasoning that it would affect her job and her relationship with her son, but once Chris gets a facefull of that pollen, he becomes more forthright and somehow more of a proposition.
But not everyone at work likes Little Joe: Kerry Fox as the middle-aged boffin Bella becomes convinced her beloved dog has had its personality changed by the plant, and from there postulates that the whole research programme is a danger that is better nipped in the bud. Yet even she is embarrassed to be the voice of contradiction, despite Alice increasingly taking her side (though not forcefully enough), and the problem that arises when you believe you may be losing control of your mental capabilities, then realise that it is everyone else who is losing theirs, may be a common one in paranoia cinema, but it's such an effective concept that it can bolster even a storyline like this one which could have been strictly "been there, done that". With Teiji Ito borrowed for unnerving, Japanese kabuki music on the soundtrack that more than most things here has you pondering all is not well, this was not going to be everyone's idea of a science fiction chiller, but under Hausner's wonderfully controlled direction and Beecham's subtly repressed alarm, if you responded you were going to like it a lot.
[Little Joe is released on Blu-ray and DVD by The BFI with the following features:
Presented in Standard Definition and High Definition
Jessica Hausner in Conversation (2020, 37 mins): the director and co-writer of Little Joe talks to Geoff Andrew about the film and her career to date, recorded at BFI Southbank
Emily Beecham on Little Joe (2020, 2mins): the Little Joe star talks about her character and what influenced both the film and her own performance
Cast and crew Q&A (2019, 17 mins): Jessica Hausner, co-screenwriter Geraldine Bajard and costume designer Tanja Hausner are joined by actors Emily Beecham and Kerry Fox for a post-screening talk hosted by Geoff Andrew at the 2019 London Film Festival
The Birth of a Flower (1910, 8 mins): Percy Smith's mesmerising early time-lapse film captures the poerty of flowers as they open their petals to the light
***FIRST PRESSING ONLY*** Fully illustrated booklet with new writing on the film and full film credits.]