Little Joe review: Brilliantly creepy sci-fi horror
Ivan Radford | On 15, Jun 2020
Director: Jessica Hausner
Cast: Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw
Watch Little Joe online in the UK: BFI Player / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent)
What if a plant could make you happy? That’s the hook behind Little Joe, a deliciously creepy new horror.
Ben Whishaw and Emily Beecham play Chris and Alice, two scientists who create the titular flower with the aim of inducing happiness, but soon discover that their actions have unforeseen consequences. If that fable of human science reaching too far seems familiar, there’s a fresh injection of unnerving insight through Jessica Hausner and Géraldine Bajard’s script, which delicately touches on notes of parenthood, ethics and the modern happiness industry. Indeed, the notion of a cheer-inducing flower could easily sell to punters in the current climate, where lockdown and quarantining have exacerbated the risk of already feeling disconnected in an online age of echo chambers and bubbles.
That sense of detachment plays into Little Joe’s central fear: the idea of not knowing your loved ones anymore, whether that’s Alice and her son, Joe, after whom she tellingly named the genetically modified plant, or her colleague Bella (Kerry Fox) and her dog, Bello, who begins to act strangely. Playing out like The Midwich Cuckoos cross-fertilised with Little Shop of Horrors, the result taps into themes of alienation and isolation, shrewdly woven with Alice’s own possible worry that she’s chosen the baby she made at work over the child she raised at home – the plant, we’re told, triggers production of the maternal hormone to keep owners looking after it. As for the real Joe’s bizarre behaviour, is he just growing up? Or is there something else afoot?
Emily Beecham is sensational in the lead role, a woman surrounded by men telling her not to be concerned despite her better instincts. Everyone’s motivations at once seem sympathetic and sinister, heightened by the slightly stilted, artificial feel of the dialogue – Whishaw’s smiling delivery, in particular, is enjoyably unsettling. Hausner, who is making her English-language directorial debut, is a master of tone, crafting laughs that are both unexpected and uneasy and teasing out performances that are both sweet and shady, while echoing the script’s themes through the pristinely choreographed costumes and production design – Little Joe’s undulating petals are closer to tentacles than something you’d buy from a florist, and the pollen clouds they release into the air are alarmingly vivid.
From the off, a mood of discomfort is established by the brilliantly jarring opening titles, combining disorienting camera movements with haunting music from Teiji Ito. That feeling doesn’t leave you for 105 minutes, as this curious cautionary tale reels you in by your nerve-endings but knowingly keeps you at arm’s length. An eccentric, clinically weird treat.
Little Joe is available now on BFI Player, as part of a £4.99 monthly subscription.