When was the last time you watched a science fiction that felt like it was actually invested in the science? It’s satisfying to see a genre piece so committed to actually feeling authentic, not in the sense of presenting social realism but feeling like work has been put in the make a slightly outlandish premise feel believable.
Little Joe is about Alice Woodard (Emily Beecham) a botanist who has grown a strain of plant called Little Joe, designed to require more care from its owner but also to increase joy, along with her lab assistant Chris (Ben Whishaw) who has been exhibiting bizarrely predatory behaviour since accidentally inhaling a large amount of Joe’s pollen. Also, there is the story of Beecham and her son, Joe (His Dark Materials’ Kit Connor), the Joe that the plant is named after and the struggle to connect with him.
Beecham is fantastic, quietly controlling the scenes and letting her disconnect from anything other than her work but recognition of her duties as a mother to love her son as much as her plants play out predominantly through inner turmoil. Such things are made more literal during scenes of her with her therapist, as played by the superb Lindsay Duncan, and if those scenes were just an excuse for Lindsay Duncan to wear a variety of fantastic floral-patterned outfits, it was worth it. But in all seriousness, these scenes could have played as blatant emotional exposition in lesser hands but with strong direction and performances, they work.
Whishaw, playing a very subdued part wisely recognises that he is not the main character and does not try to pull focus, the rest of the ensemble play their parts well including a fantastically brittle performance by Kerry Fox as a not-quite rival but a certainly antagonistic scientist. However, Alice’s son does seem like he is from a different film, giving a somewhat arch, self-reflexive performance that does tend to draw unnecessary attention in the scenes.
The scenes are shot cleanly and clinically, benefitting the subject matter while never becoming too showy as to distract and as a piece of stylised direction. Every scene feels well-blocked and appropriately constructed. The dialogue itself feels like it’s aiming for a level slightly beyond realism and it feels like scene-by-scene, it works in propelling forward the narrative and unveiling new character depths.
But ultimately the Twilight Zone as directed by Yorgos Larithimos vibe while very strong for the first half-hour or so, it does start to drag. It feels much like the sort of film that was based off a very good short film but then starts to feel like as a full-length it doesn’t quite have enough variation in the plot or character development to fill a full 105 minutes. It is also worth noting that the minimalist soundtrack, heavy on woodwind and percussion, made me want to fight my television every time it was playing.
For anyone wondering whether that’s in a good way, how could that be in a good way?
There is a lot to love about Little Joe. As an actor’s piece, it’s very good with Beecham a true standout in the lead, the effects used to create the flowers are often seamless and there is the crux of a strong idea here. I’m just not sure that the methodical, clinical approach to proceedings doesn’t hamper the impact of the final act, leaving what should be an effective ending rendered somewhat flat by an overextended middle.
Dir: Jessica Hausner
Scr: Jessica Hausner, Géraldine Bajard
Cast: Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox, Kit Connor, Lindsay Duncan, David Wilmot, Phénix Brossard
Prd: Bruno Wagner, Bertrand Faivre, Philippe Bober, Martin Gschlacht, Jessica Hausner, Gerardine O’Flynn
DOP: Martin Gschlacht
Music: Teiji Ito, Markus Binder
Country: Austria, Germany, United Kingdom
Run time: 105 minutes
Little Joe is available on Blu-ray, DVD, BFI Player, Amazon Prime, iTunes and Curzon Home Cinema now.
Little Joe is out now on DVD & BFI on Demand