Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Movie Review: Little Joe

Little Joe **** / *****
Directed by: Jessica Hausner.
Written by: Jessica Hausner and Geraldine Bajard.
Starring: Emily Beecham (Alice Woodard), Ben Whishaw (Chris), Kerry Fox (Bella), Kit Connor (Joe Woodard), Phenix Brossard (Ric), Leanne Best (Brittany), Andrew Rajan (Jasper), David Wilmot (Karl), Goran Kostic (Mr. Simic), Yana Yanez (Mrs. Simic), Sebastian Hulk (Ivan), Jessie Mae Alonzo (Selma), Phoebe Austen (Ella).
Little Joe is an unsettling horror movie that slowly, but surely, builds a sense of unease. This isn’t a horror film with any real violence or blood – not even people dying, but rather just a mounting sense of discomfort. It’s also a film that has built up some controversy for its worldview – one that seemingly suggests that chemically altering your moods – with say, anti-depressants – makes you somehow less human, less of yourself than you used to be. Personally, I think the film is a little more complicated and nuanced and ambiguous than that – but I get where those people are coming from.
The film stars Emily Beecham as Alice Woodard, a brilliant scientist specializing in plants. She is divorced, and raising her son Joe not by herself – her husband is involved, but he’s far away. Her latest creation is something she has called Little Joe – and it is a plant whose smell will alter your mood – essentially acting as an anti-depressant, turning your mood around. It is a major breakthrough at the company she is fairly new at – and everyone is very excited about going to the upcoming flower show with it. It just needs a little bit more testing to ensure it is safe for public. Alice has cut some corners along the way – using some virus she wasn’t supposed to, and even bringing one of the Little Joe’s home to her own house. And then, weird things start happening.
One of her colleagues is Bella (Kerry Fox) – and she has her own history of mental illness, serious enough that she has had to take time off in the past to deal with it. She starts the commotion when she thinks her dog – who was in the room with the hundreds of Little Joe’s is not her dog anymore. The concern grows when another colleague – Chris (Ben Whishaw) doesn’t seem to be quite himself anymore – and has become even more gung ho about Little Joe then before. Then her son – and a new girlfriend – start acting a little strange. One by one, her colleagues – even those who were once unsure of Little Joe – start to think it’s the great, and even start to think they don’t need to do all that safety testing after all. Alice starts to get a little worried herself.
The film was directed by Jessica Hausner, and the film may recall for some viewers Stanley Kubrick. The film does have a more cold, detached style from the cinematography, which is somehow both chilly and pastel bright, to the ever strange sound design – constantly inside your head with clanging sounds, to the performance style. In that regard, you may remember the type of performance Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos elicited from his casts prior to The Favourite. The scariest thing in the film is just the lingering shots of all this hundreds of plants – which may or may not be turning people into versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers pod people.
It is this aspect of the movie that has become understandably controversial. Is the film really arguing that using anti-depressants is a bad thing? That we should want to feel bad, even if we could feel good if feeling good means having to use something external to change our body chemistry? Or is the film more complicated than that – is it about the paranoia that many people who are prescribed anti-depressants feel will happen to them if they take it – and some (including myself, during my one stint on anti-depressants) feel while they are on them. The film leaves enough ambiguity in its depiction – right up until the end, which doesn’t really answer any questions, that you can grapple with it. If we ever find out that Hausner is a scientologist, or some other anti-psychiatry kook, then we’ll know – but otherwise, we may never know.
What I do know is that Little Joe is a tremendously unsettling movie from beginning to end. There is something about the chilly atmosphere, the brilliant performances – none more so than Beecham’s (who won the Best Actress prize at Cannes), and Hausner’s absolute control over the film that just gets under your skin, and stays there. It’s deeply unsettling movie – all the more so because it doesn’t give you the answer you want it to.

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