Film review: ‘LITTLE JOE’, by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

With some of the ‘nature takes revenge’ horror of The Day of the Triffids, a touch of Black Mirror’s malevolent wit and a nod to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the intriguing, at times sinister but slightly undercooked British sci-fi drama Little Joe  takes us into the lucrative but contentious world of bio-engineering and genetic modification.

In an unnervingly pristine British lab, biologist Alice Woodward (Emily Beecham) has genetically engineered a new plant species that may revolutionise psychiatric treatment.  The flaming red flower, named Little Joe, that she has nurtured emits a pollen that lifts people’s mood; they call it ‘a happy plant’.  Of course, in a creepy sci fi film there has to be a nasty trade-off and something disturbing has to happen.  Early indications that all is not ok with Little Joe occur when another scientist’s dog starts acting strangely, its owner suggesting it’s no longer the same creature. When Alice’s son Joe, after whom Little Joe is named, also seems to change and becomes strangely confrontational and aggressive after inhaling the pollen, Alice starts to suspect she may have bred a monster.

The film touches on – although it doesn’t explore in great depth – issues of family dysfunction, disappearing identity, what it means to be human and the highly topical concerns of genetically modified organisms and strangely enough, a spreading virus.

Writer/ director, Aussie Jessica Hausner and cinematographer Martin Gschaltt have fashioned an eerily clinical world where even bright colours seem oddly grim.  The visual style has echoes of Stanley Kubrick’s icy meticulous work.  The film also features one of the most unusual soundtracks of recent times. Japanese composer Teiji Ito has mixed strange ethereal flutes, bursts of clattering noise and what seem like ancient tribal sounds.

The tone is matched by Emily Beecham’s effectively chilly performances as Alice.  Her ambitious and weird commitment to Little Joe makes her seem more like the plants’s mother than a scientist.  Ben Wishaw is equally impressive as her creepily smug colleague and would-be suitor.

While the film establishes an impressively disturbing mood and an unnerving premise, the storyline doesn’t evolve quite as much as we might have liked and it lacks a knock out ending.  Consequently, it’s a little more style than substance. Still, the subtly unsettling pleasures on offer here are worth the time of any sci-fi fan.

Nick’s rating: ***1/2

Genre: Sci-fi / drama.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Jessica Hausner.

Release date: 1st July 2021.

Running time: 105 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.

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