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Film Review: Little Joe

24 February 20 words: Ian C Douglas

When flowers attack - Ian C Douglas reviews offbeat Cannes drama Little Joe...

Director: Jessica Hausner
Starring: Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kit Connor
Running Time: 105 minutes

Any of us who ever struggled with our work/life balance can identify with Alice. She clocks up long shifts at a genetic laboratory, then comes home to her somewhat angelic son Joe, feeling guilty at her neglectful parenting. We’ve all been there. So, Alice cuts a few health and safety precautions, and takes a beautiful crimson flower home for Joe.

Yes, the very pinnacle of her research: a plant designed to stimulate both the happy hormone and the mothering hormone in humans. The market potential is mind-blowing, as is the plant. Without a blink of Freudian irony, she calls the species ‘Little Joe’. What could possibly go wrong?

Um, quite a lot, as it turns out, in this imaginative and low-budget movie about flower-power taking control. Soon those around Alice are acting odd. Happily odd, but odd nonetheless. And that all-important flower festival is fast approaching. Oh, if only she’d nipped it all in the bud while she had the chance!

This is the first English language movie by Austrian auteur Jessica Hausner. She certainly has a gift for style. The bright, sterile, environment of the research company, the day-glo colours of the furniture, the unsettling incidental music with its haunting use of east Asian percussion - and then there’s that unexplained high-pitched whistling, almost too high for the human ear. It suggests something sinister is happening, just beyond our perception.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers for the modern age

Alice is played by Emily Beecham, who won Best Actress at Cannes for this role. The performance is quirky, repressed, evasive. Could it be the whole ‘Little Joe’ thing is in her mind? Teenage Joe, by the way, is played by young Kit Connor, who arguably gives the best performance. The usually-reliable Ben Whishaw also co-stars, and spends most of his time hanging out at the lab and looking nondescript. Suspiciously nondescript. Or maybe it’s all in our minds too?

You might think of this movie as an Invasion of the Body Snatchers for the modern age. As hardened film theorists will quickly spot, there are plenty of parallels between the two stories: alienation, species betrayal, paranoia, and most of all, the loss of humanity. Decide for yourself which film does it better.

Little Joe mostly skips the opportunity to satirise the dangers of big pharma turning us all into medicated zombies. And at an hour and 45 minutes, it may have benefited from sharper scissors in the editing suite.

To sum up, this is soft sci-fi that’s low on menace. The film is visually striking and the Little Joes look convincing. The key theme is exploring what it is to be human, by way of parental guilt. There is too, a crucial warning about the ‘Prozac revolution’ but it gets a little lost somewhere between the script conference and final cut.

Little Joe is screening at Broadway Cinema until Thursday 27 February

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