Olivia Cooke and Jack O’Connell shine in a melodramatic, but immersive romantic tragedy that mimics the isolation and loss of our current moment.
Based on an Aja Gabel short story and directed by Chad Hartigan, Little Fish follows a married couple as they try to hold onto what they love in a world ravaged by a pandemic. In a lot of ways, there are eerie similarities with our present reality, but the main difference is that the virus in this film slowly takes away memories – functioning very similarly to Alzheimer’s. In the midst of a flurry of pandemic-themed media coming out which tries to reflect the situation which the world is presently in, Little Fish manages to distinguish itself from the crowd with its brilliant leads and emotional resonance.
The couple in question are Emma, (Olivia Cooke), a young English vet, and Jude, (Jack O’Connell), a band photographer. Neither of their characters feels especially unique; they’re people that you’d see on the street and not bat an eyelid – but that actually works in the film’s favour. Early on, we find out that Jude has come down with the virus (Neuro Inflammatory Disorder (NIA)) and they spend the rest of the story trying to see how they can continue to hold onto the time they have left before all his memories are gone.
Individually, they’re both great performers: Cooke is incredibly expressive, buried in empathy for Jude as he loses his memory. O’Connell is less outwardly emotive but really effectively shows the terror of slowly losing your grip on everything you hold dear. Their chemistry together is persistently tender, from their banter to their arguments — everything feels like it comes from a place of love. They’re ultimately what holds Little Fish together.
The best scenes come when the two of them try to reconstruct some of Jude’s memories. As O’Connell struggles, the scene switches. A dress shifts from white to blue. A patio goes from summer to winter. The lights on a club wall change. Sean McElwee’s beautiful cinematography, combined with Josh Crockett’s sharp editing and the tender performances, make all these scenes hit hard. You feel the instability and pain that comes with the uncertainty of these lovers’ future. Nothing is stable or permanent anymore.
That sense of loss permeates throughout Hartigan’s story. There’s an eeriness that’s all too familiar to our current COVID anxiety: empty streets, constant bad news, collective trauma. Keegan DeWitt’s score rings with emotional truth, punctuating moments of quiet loss. Mattson Tomlin’s script offers up clever, harrowing moments when you see someone react to a dramatic onset loss of memory in public that gives some sense of unpredictability.
But Tomlin also conveys a lot of information in heavy-handed exposition dumps that don’t feel organic or interesting. The virus itself is vaguely defined and we never understand how it actually functions: How does someone get infected? Sometimes people are wearing masks and sometimes they aren’t. People will be around NIA-affected people for long periods of time and be fine, so how does transmission work? For all intents and purposes, the world seems to go on as normal, but with a few hastily mentioned travel restrictions and some ID checks.
This intangibility often means that it’s hard to feel grounded in the world outside of the couple. On the one hand, this adds to the intensity; on the other, the vagueness makes the stakes hazy. In the end, the specifics of the virus fall to the wayside and don’t really get in the way of the emotional truth of the story.
At the moment, we’re inundated with pandemic-related content, from documentaries to biopics as people rush to create the first great work about the conditions that we’re living in. Hartigan and Tomlin abandon the grandiose and zero in on the personal. As a result of this focus and some incredible performances, Little Fish is a heart-wrenching tale of struggle and loss that resonates with our present moment.
Little Fish is currently available in theaters and on demand.