Divorced mom Alice Woodard (Emily Beecham) is so committed to her job as a breeder at PlantHouse Biotechnologies she suffers guilt from feelings of abandoning her son Joe (Kit Connor). When she and her partner Chris (Ben Whishaw) develop a new flower, that, when properly tended, induces happiness in its caregiver, she breaks the rules and brings it home as a gift for her son, who it is named after. After her plants emit clouds of pollen, coworker Bella (Kerry Fox) becomes fearful of her dog, which was exposed. Then Alice notices changes in her son and begins to suspect a viral pathogen is being transmitted by “Little Joe.”
Like "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" before it, the film is an allegory for mind control, but it also
addresses our more modern over-medicated condition just as the current wave of skewed political realities ups the ante of the former. Cowriter (with Geraldine Bajard)/director Jessica Hausner (“Lourdes”) calls into question our very ability to control our own emotions, always walking a fine line between real world horror and psychology.
In a bit of foundational exposition, Alice explains how, in engineering flowers to be more resistant, they have lost much of their scent. She set out to do the opposite, developing a flower that requires coddling but rewards with a mood lifting, anti-depressant smell. Her resultant ‘Little Joes’ are quite striking, bright red blooms like a cross between a poppy and a thistle resting atop a leafless maroon stalk (before fully opening, they also resemble “Alien’s” chestburster and it is notable that Alice’s short hair is a luxurious red).
But strange events follow as they mature. One morning, the glass is coated with their pollen and Karl (David Wilmot), Bella and Ric’s (Phénix Brossard) plants, blue tulips with variegated leaves, have begun to die. Alice notes that the other team has lost prior versions, dismissing their accusations. Then Bella panics when her dog, Bello, disappears in the lab just as they are leaving. Chris goes back in to look for him, the Little Joes opening as he passes with a creepy rustling sound. When Bello finally reappears, he’s skittish. ‘That’s not my dog,’ Bella says, her fears attributed to mental problems she is taking medication for. Then Joe begins to pull away from his mother, spending time with new girlfriend Selma (Jessie Mae Alonzo), who speech is eerily robotic, and voicing a desire to live with his dad Ivan (Sebastian Hülk). She confides in both her psychotherapist (Lindsay Duncan), who believes she’s projecting, and Chris about her ‘Little Joe’ fears. Neither believes her.
Hausner’s film is a meticulously stylized piece of work, almost sterile in its stripped down modern aesthetic which is complemented by the original music of Japanese composer Teiji Ito. The color palette features reds and oranges and every shade of green from mint to forest, all set against neutral, often white, backgrounds. The ensemble maintains an ambiguity in those exhibiting ‘before and after’ behavior, each actor providing subtle bits of shading to the whole.
“Little Joe” is a thought provoking piece of paranoia horror where everyone around us is viewed with suspicion. Hausner’s intricately plotted work is full of small signposts leading to multiple interpretations on multiple levels.
Robin also gives "Little Joe" a B.
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