Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jessica Hausner
Screenwriter: Jessica Hausner, Géraldine Bajard
Cast: Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kit Connor, Kerry Fox, David Wilmot
Screened at: Digital Arts, NYC, 10/15/19
Opens: December 6, 2019
Take a ride on the New York subway. Look around at the people surrounding you while pretending you’re looking at your smartphone. Do they seem particularly happy? If not, do they seem really depressed? Not usually. Would you be surprised to find out that a large number of your fellow New Yorkers are taking anti-depressants? In other words, people who take Prozac or the older medications like Elavil are acting relatively normal in public. They are not “different” people zombied out by their medication from the way they were before swallowing the pills, but Jessica Hausner, who directs and co-wrote “Little Joe” appears to warn us that Big Pharma is out to get our money and willing to take away our personalities as well. Then again we don’t really know what her point is since nothing in the story takes a firm stand.
The people in this film who have become affected by a feel-good flower have not particularly changed their character. They are not pod people. Nor are they carrying on as though they have just downed a couple of ecstasy pills at an all-night party. The changes that they undergo are subtle, which makes Hausner’s treatment a lot more nuanced than that taking place in your typical horror movie. By contrast think of how different they become in Jordan Peele’s excellent “Get Out.”
In one sense, this is good. “Little Joe” does not go over the top with horror tropes but rather makes the changes in personality almost too subtle to notice. On the other hand, since the people do not change much, what’s the big deal? Is this enough of a warning that we are too dependent on happiness pills? Not by my reckoning.
Vienna-born director Hausner, whose terrific “Lourdes” in 2009 focuses on a wheelchair-bound woman attaining a miracle by going to Lourdes, films in Krems an de Donau, Vienna and Liverpool putting Alice Woodard (Emily Beecham) front and center. The pixie-ish redhead is dedicated to her work in Planthouse Biotechnologies currently experimenting on a flower whose aroma can make people happy, provided that they are affectionate with the plant and water it regularly. In fact the hundreds of flowers laid out in the opening of the film do appear to respond well to human beings, opening their petals as though they were Venus flytraps that have just digested a scrumptious meal of caterpillars.
However the plant has not yet been approved by the necessary government agencies leading Karl, the boss (David Wilmot) to warn his crew about excess optimism. In violation of the rules, Alice takes a plant home, one of a species that she has named Little Joe in honor of her 13-year-old son Joe (Kit Connor). She becomes alarmed when Kit, who has never expressed a wish to live with his father who is Alice’s ex-husband, falls under the influence of Little Joe and suddenly wants to move out and live with his dad. Is he changing because he is going through puberty, or because of the influence of the petals?
For her part Alice is being pursued romantically by her lab partner Chris (Ben Whishaw), rejecting one of his advance but reconsidering later. Is that change of heart an effect of the Little Joe? We in the audience need to interpret that and several other aspects of the movie. As we can see, the biotech workers who have been in contact with the flowers have not changed, although they may, like those of us who take antidepressants, be trying to act their regular selves. If Géraldine Bajard, who co-wrote the script with the director, wants us to see noticeable transformations, why be so subtle as though shrugging off all the melodramas inherent in other sci-fi movies?
One character, Bella (Kerry Fox), had returned to work in the lab having been on leave after a suicide attempt. She has a nice sheepdog which she brings to the lab, a sweet, obedient fella who had suddenly turned vicious, ignoring Bella’s commands and threatening to bite her. She decides: “This is not my dog.” Is the dog acting strange because he senses that Bella is not the same woman? And why isn’t Bella, despite her mental illness, made as happy and content as the others?
These questions may be to the credit of the writers and director, or on the other hand may be so inconsistent and vague to warrant audience confusion and frustration. Finally is it supposed to be terrible that depressed people change their personalities for the better under the influence of Big Pharma? At least one person is happy even without the use of Little Joe, and that would be Emily Beecham who won the award for Best Actress at Cannes.
105 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – C
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – C+