Directed by: #JessicaHausner
Little Joe is an eerie and dark dance into the self or more importantly the idea we have of the self. It questions who we are and who we pretend to be. Set in a modern day laboratory, a single mother and plant breeder Alice (Emily Beecham) and her team attempt to artificially create a plant that has the distinctly unique ability to induce happiness in whomever takes care of it. It’s an intriguing concept, and during the Q&A that followed the screening Director & Writer Jessica Hausner openly stated that it’s her take on Invasion of the Body Snatchers, admitting how intrigued she was by the idea of someone appearing to be themselves but actually not.
The Screenplay was penned by Hausner alongside her longtime writing partner Geraldine Bajard (Amour Fou, 2014 and Lourdes, 2009). The two successfully manage to allow events to slowly unfold, as Little Joe’s presence leaves the pristine and controlled environment of the lab and enters the more personal and domestic space of Alice’s home when she gifts her son Joe his own ‘Little Joe’. The pacing works well initially but meanders a little during Act II which may frustrate some. Ultimately it’s left up to the audience to decipher whom may or may not have been manipulated by Little Joe’s pollen, or conclude that it's all just been the power of suggestion.
Hausner’s directing style is in full-swing throughout, as she purposely uses the camera to limit what the audience is allowed to access visually. There are multiple occasions in which scenes are either cut short, or the camera is pulled away from the action in an attempt to disorientate the viewer. Hausner clearly has an affinity with ambiguity, and avoids giving definitive answers to the questions she is posing, leaving it to her audience to make their own conclusions. This isn’t always successful, and quite often feels forced as if she is attempting techniques for the sake of being unconventional. However, when it does work it works well and goes some way in contributing to the indefinite nature of Little Joe and the characters that come into contact with him.
Visually the film is Hausner’s most stylistic in its use of colour, set design and distinctive wardrobe (almost Wes Anderson-esque). There is definitely a 70s pastel aesthetic present throughout despite seemingly being set in the present day. Images pop off the screen, particularly the almost LSD-Induced design of ‘Little Joe’ against the clean white backdrop of the Laboratory. It’s executed well and is generally quite a treat for the eyes. Some may view this style as unnecessary, but it adds to the alien nature of Little Joe and the world he inhabits, and further confirms for this reviewer that plants in movies are creepy.
The cast is strong across the board, all helping to elicit the underlying eeriness of this world. There’s a robotic mundanity to a lot of the performances which adds to the alien oddness of the world Hausner has created. Certain characters feel like they are carrying out their lives in a pre-programmed fashion, and delivering lines of dialogue seemingly with no emotion or empathy. It’s similar to the repetitive nature of how the plant breeders attend to their plants on a daily basis. This slowly becomes more apparent as Alice notices the significant changes in her own personal life, coping with the divide between being a successful plant breeder and a single mother.
Hausner purposely leaves Little Joe’s intentions unclear, and it is this ambiguity that is the film’s main strength, leaving the viewer to still question what actually happened after the credits roll. This kind of approach won’t be for everyone, and there are moments where it is frustrating to stick with because its intentions aren’t always clear, but it feels like the right direction for a film of this kind. Little Joe just about does more good than bad and successfully provides a new twist on an established sci-fi trope, asking us to question the nature of this play that is life and the roles we choose or do not choose to play in it.