It’s the current phrase du jour. Plant based. It’s full of benefits for human health and the environment as a whole – certainly as far as food is concerned. But our leafy, flowering friends aren’t always quite so benevolent, and that applies especially to fictional ones. Think Audrey II’s taste for blood. And who would want to get cuddly with a Triffid?
The plants – brand name Little Joe – that give the latest from director Jessica Hausner its name, as well as a distinctly disturbing and haunting quality, fall very much into the second category. But instead of being pure bred, they’re man made, the result of a genetic engineering project to make a plant which exudes a scent to make everybody feel happy. A nice, simple idea for the benefit of mankind, created in a contemporary-ish world with Alice (Emily Beecham), a stickler for getting things right, at the head of the team. Then, unexpectedly, she starts to break the rules, taking a plant home for her young son to look after, even though one of her colleagues has already expressed concerns that its pollen has a sinister effect. The plants mature, other members of the team show subtle behaviour changes and Alice’s son is changing in a way that’s not wholly to do with puberty. She, on the other hand, feels she’s immune to whatever is affecting everybody else. But for how long?
Reflecting the laboratory origins of the plants, the film has a sterile look, all white walls and glass when Alice is at work and her home décor is much the same. She lives an organised, regimented life, despite sharing her home with a child, wearing a pastel green lab coat at work and what looks like a uniform – a track suit – at home. That coolness extends to the relationships between the characters so that, when they do come together, it’s either a surprise or an act of unexpected and shocking violence. And, while the language is equally unemotional, there’s flashes of bleak humour, underlined by a remarkable soundtrack from Teiji, with Japanese flutes and bamboo percussion that create an unearthly, often sinister mood, but one that’s always at a distance. It’s all designed to keep the audience in its place behind the fourth wall, as are the many events that happen off camera. Sometimes only the end result is visible, sometimes it’s left to the imagination, which is often worse than the reality.
The storyline isn’t quite so immaculate with the occasional frustrating hole coming to light, but essentially it’s is on familiar territory. Aside from other, malevolent cinematic plants, it’s in the realms Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, The Stepford Wives and Village Of The Damned, but the apparent effects of the pollen are more insidious and more subtle, with those infected increasingly seeming to be not of this world. That familiarity is Little Joe’s biggest weakness, but it doesn’t stand in the way of it being an interesting, fascinating and strangely captivating movie. It also benefits from a terrific central performance from Beecham, who constantly struggles to separate fact from fiction and/or paranoia and to reconcile her duties as a mother with her career.
There’s a horror lurking in here, pushing hard to get out but only seeping through on all too rare occasions. If only it had been allowed to emerge fully. But there are still plenty of ideas and layers to the story to relish and unpick.
Drama, Science Fiction | Cert: 12A | BFI Distribution| UK, 21 February 2020 | Dir. Jessica Hausner | Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox, Kit Connor and Lindsay Duncan.