Little Joe (2019)
Written by Jessica Hausner & Géraldine Bajard
Directed by Jessica Hausner
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is one of the most recycled narrative tropes in cinema, and more often than not, those adaptations fall short. The original and the 1970s remake stand above the fray. Little Joe is a secret Body Snatchers picture, telling a very well thought-out variation on the official story. However, there’s so little to the script that its slow burn actually becomes a hindrance to the character development and tension that should be present in a picture like this. Technically and aesthetically, Little Joe has a lot going on that entices the audience, but ultimately it fails to deliver on the promise of these things.
Alice Woodard (Alice Beecham) is a botanist who has created a new plant that needs more care than average but exudes chemicals that give the owner a strong sense of euphoria and love. Her colleagues try to breed plants that can go for months without direct care withstand harsh weather to solve hunger issues. Alice sneaks one of her plants out as a gift to her son, Joe, and they name the breed “Little Joe.” Little Joe begins aggressively pollinating, Alice theorizes this is because she made the plant sterile. The result of their pollination is that humans around them start to disassociate and become secretive in groups. Alice slowly realizes that her own invention is becoming something more powerful than she originally intended.
Little Joe feels like an extended episode of Black Mirror with its themes revolving around the ways science blindly tries to numb human beings into a state of passive happiness. Alice never really has a complete grasp of what she has made until it’s too late. The people she confronts when things start to go badly are never violent or even that aggressive. The slow takeover is one of private conversations & whispers. When Alice finally understands what has happened, almost no one left to stand up.
The aesthetics of Little Joe displace it, leaving its exact era unknown to the audience. It could be the present, an alternate past, or a possible future. This disconnect adds to the atmosphere of eeriness that pervades the picture. Thematically the film is about the relationship between Alice and her son, Joe. He’s coming of age, and a significant plot point is his sudden desire to go live with his father. The mind-altering plant is a plot device to heighten the unease of a mother suddenly feeling emotionally distant from her own child. Alice is incredibly devoted to her career and loves her son but seems more focused on perfecting her vegetative creation, her other child.
The very name of the flower, Little Joe, slaps the viewer across the face that we’re meant to think about the plant in juxtaposition to the child. Her flower requires more attention than the average plant owner would give, but if you love it, there is a return of overwhelming, almost insane feelings of love. The themes get a bit muddled in the second act, and by the end, I wasn’t quite sure what the filmmakers were trying to say about anything really. I appreciated the moral ambiguity, the protagonist becoming more and more resigned to the paradigm shift of society around her. There’s such an overlay of passivity that’s intentional, but I personally couldn’t quite latch on to what the director was trying to say with it.