An apocalyptic thriller framed as an indie drama, Chad Hartigan’s sci-fi romance is a timely tale of love that’s not-quite-lost—but very much on the brink. As a virus that steals the memories of everyday people rapidly spreads, Emma and Jude do all they can to cling to the little time they have left together. Set in a near-future dystopian—eerily similar to the global pandemic facing the world today—Jude (Jack O’Connell) is victim to a neuroinflammatory affliction called NIA, reminiscent of Alzheimer’s. But he’s not the only one—half the world has begun to lose their memory, as the other half desperately rush for a cure.
As Emma (Olivia Cooke) puts it early on in the movie: “When your disaster is everyone’s disaster, how do you grieve?” Hartigan uses Jude and Emma’s love story—sparking with chemistry—as a microcosm for the bigger tragedy afoot. By reducing the world-wide plague down to one couple’s experience of it, viewers can more easily digest the narrative, understanding the effects of such a virus on a more personal level than say, Contagion (dir. Steven Soderberg, 2011).
As Jude (alongside his best friend Ben and Emma’s mother) begins to fade, Emma is determined not to let him go. Being a photographer, Jude is accustomed to the art of documenting life via the small moments. He and Emma take this to the next level, using his photographs as memory joggers—their apartment number, their dogs name, and eventually, who Emma is. Hartigan still allows us snapshots into the outside world however—mainly for context. Here we see the way some victims snap all at once—fisherman forgetting how to steer a ship; bus drivers forgetting how to drive—whereas others slowly dwindle away, like a roaring fire petering into a single flame. As is the case for Jude, during which viewers witness his journey from thriving newly-weds with Emma, to a lonesome blank page.
It’s not all quit as depressing as it sounds. Despite the inherent tragedy of the plot, Hartigan retains a constant focus on optimism, without an overload of cliched sentimentality. Essentially, he captures the beauty of life’s small moments in the same way Jude does. Emma’s plaintive, dulled narration keeps viewers grounded in the hardship and frustration of it all, yet there’s a dream-like quality to the visuals that keeps the story light and graceful. Sean McElwee’s cinematography is brushed with pastel, reflecting its themes of memory, emotion and gratitude for the things we do have. Stuck in that hazy nostalgia of old photographs, we float through an abyss of familiar feelings and forgotten faces, constantly untying and repainting the past. An unexpected plot twist implies a grander theme of destiny, with the circular narrative bringing Jude and Emma together despite all odds.
Despite being a sci-fi, Little Fish doesn’t get bogged down in the science of it all—that’s not what the films about. Viewers get enough information to follow the narrative, but beyond that, it’s the emotional side Hartigan gives attention to; not the logical. Face masks, cancelled flights and border patrol aren’t unfamiliar sights for todays viewers, rendering the lofty plot a little more relatable. Little Fish couldn’t be released at a more apt time, as our very own governments race towards a cure to Covid-19, speeding through trials. Perhaps, Hartigan’s message of gratitude for the things we have right now, in this moment, against all the current woes of the world, will make an even greater impression on us.
Drama, Sci-Fi, Romance | USA, 2020 | Digital HD, VOD | 5th February 2021 (USA, Canada)| IFC Films | Dir.Chad Hartigan | Olivia Cooke, Jack O’Connell, Soko, Raúl Castillo, David Lennon