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Little Joe (2019)
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by Jay Seaver

"A nifty, contemporary take on sci-fi staples."
4 stars

"Little Joe" approaches "Invasion of the Body Snatchers<" by way of "Gattaca", and while that may not exactly be a description that excites those who like their science fiction with a lot of action, it is all kinds of my thing. It's got the sort of unsettling ideas that get examined later, all the more so because the filmmakers are willing to look at things from angles where the alarm (and lack thereof) can come from unexpected directions.

The title refers to a new breed of flower from Planthouse Biotechnologies, which is doing something unusual in the bioengineering space - while most plants are built for hardiness and ease of care, this tends to sacrifice color and aroma. Little Joe requires a lot of care, but its colors and scent are brilliant, and its pollen, while engineered to be sterile, contains an oxytocin precursor; it chemically makes those who smell it happy. It's the work of Alice Woodard (Emily Beecham) and her partner Chris, sure to be the hit at an upcoming flower show, and she's brought one home for her son Joe (Kit Connor), though that's technically against all sorts of rules. It's just that this flower produces a lot of pollen - maybe enough to asphyxiate the other flowers in the same hothouse room - and their co-worker Bella (Kerry Fox) says her dog is acting different. But Bella's got a history of mental illness, and had to accept a demotion to come back to work, so why worry too much?

If the film has a flaw, it's that Bella sometimes seems a little too close to the mark with her hippie rantings about how making flowers sterile is unnatural and the excess pollen is the flowers fighting that, making and making people serve them. It's useful, at points - director Jessica Hausner and co-writer Géraldine Bajard can keep the audience in a skeptical place long after they would normally become impatient with people discounting the weird stuff going on - but because the movie needs that to keep things pushing forward, it doesn't have time to grapple directly with all of the other ways a flower that makes people happy could be unsettling, from the capitalist impulse to link happiness with work to how some tests seem to dissociate. Hausner and Bajard's script has everything line up, but bits like how Bella decides her dog is no longer her dog or how Little Joe compares to Alice's psychotherapy are mostly left for discussion afterward.

The filmmakers do plant all that interesting material there to be seen, and they're good at being subtly creepy. Every interior at Planthouse, for instance, is impressively sterile, the neat rows of flowers and crisp lab coats the very opposite of the popular image of gardening (even the colorful desserts precisely lined up in the commissary reinforce this idea of things meant to delight being cynically manufactured), with an early unsettling gods-eye-view of the hothouse lining up nicely with security camera footage later. Even taken out of the lab, they seem uncanny; the Little Joe in the Woodard home always seems to appear against a purple backdrop that is at once foreboding and homey. The flowers are terrific little mostly-practical effects; Hausner and her team have them open and spray enough to seem uncanny and threatening even if they never seem to be doing anything un-plant-like. The first time viewers seem them as dangerous is one of those great moments that come early in a horror movie, and every member of the cast is good at playing just slightly off how the audience saw them earlier but never quite far enough to be definitively out of character.

And at the center, Emily Beecham is giving the sort of impressive, non-showy performance that actors playing scientists in this sort of movie seldom seem to be asked for. She's full of confidence in her intellectual abilities and just enough curiosity and caution to start to question her work without it every seeming like a whiplash moment, in a way that is nicely reflected in her scenes at home or with her therapist (a well-deployed Lindsay Duncan). She's exceptionally good at showing Alice as uncertain without ever looking indecisive, letting in just the right amount of pride in what she's created to keep things interesting. There's a particularly nifty scene later on where she tells her manager - David WIlmot, part of a nifty ensemble cast - that she used an unapproved viral vector, and it's clear enough that she's being insincere, whether she's lying or just "confessing" something that would not actually bother her, and that he knows it, but we know Alice well enough that there doesn't need to be a scene confirming it.

There are a few times when the film seems to try too hard - some weird camera movement, a discordant score integrating tracks by Teiji Ito - but it comes from the same impulses that make the film ineresting. Add in some nice work by Ben Whishaw as a co-worker with a crush, Kit Connor as the son she loves but can't always connect to even before her flower is involved, and others, and it's an interesting, grounded approach to familiar science fiction stories.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=33394&reviewer=371
originally posted: 12/11/19 11:48:53
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