Monday, December 02, 2019

Hausner’s Little Joe

It could almost be a cousin of Audrey II, but it is subtler and more insidious in its pursuit of world domination. It still represents a plant-based peril, but it is man-made this time around, rather than extraterrestrial. Genre film lovers get a serious, auteurist take on a flower of evil in Jessica Hausner’s Little Joe, which opens this Friday in New York.

Alice Woodard is a bit guilty she lets her dedication to experimental botany take so much time away from her son Joe, yet she refuses to change her ways or concede more custody time to his father. As some sort of consolation, she names her revolutionary genetically engineered flower, “Little Joe” in his honor and sneaks him a potted sample, in violation of every company rule and protocol.

The whole point of Little Joe is its mood-transforming effect. Its pollen stimulates parts of the brain that release feelings of happiness. However, it might do other things too. One of Woodard’s colleagues is convinced her dog’s personality was profoundly altered by exposure to Little Joe. Her age and disappointing career trajectory make it easy for others to dismiss her warnings, but Woodard starts to suspect there might be something to what she says when her research partner (and frustrated suitor) Chris also starts acting strangely different.

Although Little Joe contains surface similarities to the classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers, it comes at the material in a sharply contemporary, medicated-to-live-your-best-life kind of way. The science is also provocative. It even echoes Jurassic Park in an unexpected twist. Woodard has deliberately engineered Little Joe to be sterile, but she fears this may have perversely kicked in its survival imperative. “Life will find a way,” Ian Malcolm always says.

For some, Little Joe might be too cool and cerebral for its own good. Hausner largely drains out the emotion from her story (co-written by Gerardine Bajard), in favor of cold, hard rational analysis and guarded paranoia. Essentially, Hausner maintains a tone that is a lot like Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster, but it is more realistic and human-like. The comparison is particularly apt since Ben Whishaw appears in both films.

Unlike either version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Hausner is slyly ambiguous throughout the film as to whether Little Joe truly poses a body-snatching threat. Yet, that ultimately makes this vegetarian Frankenstein tale ever more unsettling. Emily Beechum is also pitch-perfect as the book-smart, emotionally-dumb Woodard. Likewise, Wishaw is perfectly cast for the wooden, expressionless Chris. As the human Joe, Kit Connor also manages to navigate that choice terrain between Lanthimos’s English language films and a brainy, deliberately un-sexy SF film (like the original Andromeda Strain).

Little Joe is hard to classify, but that is one reason why it is so rewarding. This is easily one of the best science fiction films of the year, so it is a shame most of the sf media will ignore it, because they will be confused by the idiosyncratic tone and lack of lightsabers. That is their loss, but it need not be ours. Very highly recommended, Little Joe opens this Friday (12/6) in New York, at the Quad.