Jessica Hausner’s atmospheric new film is an engaging, if somewhat lacking, work
Part-thriller, part-drama, Little Joe features excellent technical credits, an intriguing script but lacks a bit more energy to make it stand out. Still, this is engaging work, at times haunting and reflective.
Taking place almost entirely indoors, between a plant-growing lab and a few apartments, Little Joe focuses on a workaholic single mother (played by Emily Beecham) who has managed to find a way to engineer a unique flower that, when taken care of, has the ability to spread a special scent that makes its owner happy. Soon after, she takes one of them to her own house in hopes of cheering up her son. Not that he is miserable in the first place, but distance has been growing between them because time after time, she prioritizes her job.
Strange occurrences kick off once the flower is successfully engineered back at the lab. People exposed to its pollen start to act differently and tend to lose any emotion. They become robotic versions of themselves, oblivious to the world around them and caring only for their flower.
With this strange but intriguing concept, Hausner makes a strong commentary on materialism and technology’s impact on human life. Have we lost our essence, our compassion, our ability to connect on a human level when most of it we care about are objects and digital devices? Have we started to rely on materialistic gratification rather than simple human connections? Are we under the spell of new trends that have further fostered a herd mentality?
These are some of the questions the film subtly addresses by using the flower as a metaphor. But it’s also interested in creating a thrilling atmosphere where technical credits, particularly the music and cinematography work to heighten a sense of dread, a gloomy cloud that hovers over the characters trying to find something hypnotic, mysterious and ultimately passionate in a simple flower. It works more than it doesn’t but by the time the credits roll, viewers may be left wanting something more. On a thriller level, the film maintains a consistent pace and solid tension throughout.
Dramatically, the film lacks character development, some warmth and less on-the-nose dialogue that could have elevated it to be much more than a smart thriller with sharp commentary. The characters are not fleshed out enough to make their motivations clear enough and the overall plot risks veering into stagnation towards the end. Thankfully, Hausner manages to maintain the pace and intrigue that glues the picture together – but more work in the story department, particularly for the film’s protagonist, could have made it a better genre film.