Jessica Hausner’s Little Joe is effective in unsettling the viewer, planting seeds of discomfort throughout its runtime. Although the sound and production design are instrumental and accomplished in creating the atmosphere Hausner seeks, the film never quite blooms into a full and satisfying story or set of ideas.
The story revolves around the development of a genetically engineered plant designed to make its owners feel ‘happy’. Although the plant requires delicate care, the aroma promotes the production of oxytocin. Emily Beecham plays Alice, the principal scientist behind the development of the plant – nicknamed Little Joe after her actual son, Joe – and Ben Whishaw plays her colleague Chris. Alice takes one of the plants home against safety precautions to give to her son. At this stage, barely perceptible changes in the behaviour of those exposed to the plant seem to manifest, making Alice question whether the changes are real or her imagination.
The stand-out aspect of Little Joe is undoubtedly the sound design and in particular the repurposed music from Teiji Ito. The percussive nature of the Kabuki-like rhythms is palpitation-inducing. When combined with a nightmarish cacophony of dogs yapping, the effect is striking and disconcerting. Additionally, the Foley and sound effect work harmonises nicely with the production design. As the camera sweeps across the growing lab, bathed in an ominous-looking pink light, the creepy noises as the plants’ flowers slowly unfurl evokes the understated horror of what is to come. The animation and design of the plants work wonderfully alongside the sound work. There is no expectation of a Little Shop of Horrors style direct physical antagonism or servitude; the red strands and the light illuminating them are a quiet alert to impending danger.
Where the film stumbles is the script and – more specifically – the lack of concrete thematic pillars on which to rest the excellent production work. Alice visits a psychiatry professional throughout the film, vocalising her fear and confusion over the changes in her son and colleagues. The film, therefore, tries to foreground mental health treatment – the plant is effectively a mood-altering substance – amidst the tweaked horror tropes. Parallel to this, the first member of the lab, Bella (Kerry Fox), to express concern is mentioned to have had mental health treatment previously, which is used to minimise her worries.
However, the execution of all this feels muddled: it is unclear whether Bella’s trajectory is a simple narrative device or is meant to have something deeper ascribed to it. The most important relationship between characters is between Alice and her son Joe. The shifts in their interactions are subtle, but, as with the previous examples, it makes it difficult to discern what – if anything – Hausner and Géraldine Bajard’s script is saying about parental relationships.
The performances, however, are pitched to precisely this level of ambiguity. There is an appropriate flatness in the delivery outside Beecham. Whishaw, in particular, pitches his performance directly into the grey area between shyness and false modesty, and between perseverance and harassment. In that regard, Hausner and her cast deliver the muted performances she expects. They are designed around the ambiguity of whether Little Joe has changed the people around Alice or if she is just worried and paranoid.
As precisely calibrated as the formal aspects are, at least one of the ideas propping them up needs elevating from the subtext, to become a tentpole for the rest of the film’s notions. There is plenty to appreciate in the film’s stylistic qualities, but without that thematic focal point, Little Joe feels like a film of a melange of potential; a promising bud rather than a blossoming flower.
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Striking sound and design work carry the film, but a more coherent idea underlining everything would elevate the film beyond stylistic admiration.
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