Jessica Hausner’s sci-fi yarn about plants that emit happy drugs doesn’t branch out as widely as one would like.
This review is part of our coverage of the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.
There aren’t a ton of questions in Jessica Hausner’s Little Joe, but the most apparent—and ostensibly central—one is, “What is happiness?” It’s quite not “what is life?” or “what is human agency?” but instead an elusive mix of the two. An answer, however, is quickly thrown out of the realm of possibility. This is a movie that takes the more admirable route of proposing a question instead of outright asking it, but a frustrating amount of its detours repeat and partially undo its brighter stretches.
On second thought, the word “brighter” might be a bit of a misnomer. The world of Little Joe is like a blade of desaturated grass stretched over sterile whites and sickly, acute greens that feel like a purgatorial Euro-art hotel lobby. Most of this exists in the research facility where Alice (Emily Beecham) is developing a new subspecies of plant that requires the kind of care similar to what a person would need. In return, the plant gives a sense of happiness in the most clinical way: given conversation and tender love, this lollipop of sterile red fuzz ejects oxytocin.
Depending on how one looks at it, it’s a sort of horticultural Tamagotchi, only it cures depression rather than exacerbates it. (One of the film’s few lost opportunities is that this nature/technology dynamic remains unplumbed.) Alice’s co-worker and stalwart admirer Chris (Ben Whishaw) isn’t completely sold on it, though, and when she brings it home to her son, Joe (Kit Connor), he just stares at it with the dead eyes of a shark. How about she calls it Little Joe? That’d be cute for this bloodied lil’ dandelion, right? Then, it starts spewing something.
Its pollen, as it so happens, starts to make Joe and his friend Selma (Jessie Mae Alonzo) act like robots from a Yorgos Lanthimos film (at least if his movies ever had robots). It’s also here that Hausner’s movie opens up to one of its more salient propositions: the concept that happiness is just a form of not thinking at all. That sort of dead-eyed sterility is not different than elation in the world of Little Joe, but the film avoids total cynicism thanks to its humor.
Little Joe’s sci-fi is firmly rooted in philosophy, just as it should be.
It’s nothing if not droll, and Beecham’s self-assured performance helps balance the tone. She has a pith to her mannerisms that contrasts against the uncanny surrounding her. Its most stilted moments are also its funniest, and Hausner makes solid use of super weird kids by turning precocious into head-scratching. Connor does an okay job here, but it’s Alonzo who shines; her eyes are as piercing as her movements are staccato. It’s really quite funny at times.
These scenes, however, can feel marooned in a film that takes a bit too long to start and ends too many times. The more Black Mirror/Twilight Zone aspects of the premise are stretched thin over the 105-minute runtime too, which pale in comparison to the overarching riffs on Invasion of the Body Snatchers. There’s little doubt that Hausner wanted to riff on more seminal genre touchstones, but some of the results don’t feel like reimaginings—just easy instead. Part of it has to do with overall sterility at times, but it’s mostly due to the circuitousness that unfolds.
Hausner’s script, which she co-wrote with Géraldine Bajard, includes scenes towards the end that overlap in pacing and themes. Some feel repetitive; one is dangerously close to being a cop-out. Are they meant to evoke a lost grip on reality, a sort of unspooling madness that may or may not be taking over Alice? If so, Little Joe lacks the tension to make that clear. Are they meant to ramp up the bizarreness until what turns up as an appropriate and—at the risk of overblowing the film’s importance—earned ending?
After all, Little Joe’s sci-fi is firmly rooted in philosophy, just as it should be. It’s also a bit of a façade that leaves its deeper themes of autonomy and nature versus humankind feeling relatively shallow. Just as it takes a little bit of time to get used to Martin Gschlacht’s decidedly hospitalized camerawork, it can take time for the film to get going. It also has a hard time stopping. It’d be nice to see Hausner try this one again with a bit more depth and discipline, but as is, it’s a bit of missed opportunity that happens to have its moments.