British creature-feature Little Joe leaves Film Critic Charlotte Edgington feeling a little cold, though impressed by its handling of workplace sexism
Jessica Hausner’s English language debut, Little Joe, follows the religiously dedicated botanist, Alice (Emily Beecham), as she balances her passion project, a new strain of plant that induces serotonin in its owner, and being a mother to her increasingly distant teenage son (Kit Connor), both, in a rather Freudian fashion, named Joe. Alice’s Frankenstein-like morality leads her to brush aside questions of ethical boundaries in the rush to complete her flower, however she slowly begins to realise that her creation has become something far more menacing than she could ever have predicted.
This Day of the Triffids-esque narrative was met with high anticipation at its Cannes festival premiere, but it’s hard not to feel as though it fell short of the pedestal it had been placed upon. Although by design a film of muted tones and emotions, the viewer receives no sense of urgency and therefore no gauge of the impending danger the film’s pollinated villain is supposed to represent. Or perhaps, to be more precise, the film’s biggest down fall is it’s pacing and narrative structure. While its premise and cast sound incredibly promising, featuring such acclaimed actors as Ben Whishaw and Lindsay Duncan, there are several key moments throughout that fall flat, leaving the audience with more to be desired. The film’s dimly building heart rate seemingly guides us to a denouement that will dramatically unmask Little Joe’s innocent and docile façade, but this climatic reveal never comes, and Little Joe’s behaviour, while not quite innocuous, does not fill the looming shadow that films like Little Shop of Horrors leave behind. The final act of the film feels unnecessary and needlessly elongated, with the debatable apex coming almost half an hour before its end, making the final minutes feel empty and purposeless as a result.
This more streamlined style also accounts for the actor’s deliveries and interactions with each other. The dynamic between mother, son, and girlfriend (newcomer Jessie Mae Alonzo) makes for humorous content, taking on liminal themes of growing up and apart from our parents with a wry wit. The two young actors were particularly convincing but despite being amusing, these scene felt a little out of place in this emotionally stunned film. We see this again in scenes concerting Alice’s lover interest, which although intentionally awkward, reveal nothing of the character’s true intentions or romantic desires. Hausner’s aim appears to have been to create a menacingly sterile monster that in its machine-like efficiency and coldness, takes over humanity before they even have time to notice. While this works conceptually, it consequently gives the viewer an almost Little Joe-like perspective of its character: detached, disinterested, and unmemorable.
On a more positive note, aesthetics wise, Hausner excellently creatives a smooth sterilised environment that is highlighted with bursts of colour that add a supernatural flare, from the pink overpowering lights in Little Joe’s greenhouse to the sickly green of the cafeteria, where rumours and gossiping turn colleagues against each other. Perhaps what is most striking about the film is its avant-garde score, composed by Teiji Ito. Its sudden jarring pace and obscure staccato instrumentation adds a jagged tension that leaves the viewer uncertain of whats to follow. Ito’s soundscape works perfectly with the cleansed environment of Little Joe and establishes an uncanny air that follows delicately throughout.
Another aspect Hausner excels at is her portrayal of women in competitive and male-dominated STEM industries. Throughout the film, Alice is constantly questioned, second-guessed, and doubted by her male colleagues, who also torment and belittle another female employee (Kerry Fox) with a history of mental illness (albeit under the guise of our floral titular character) after she comes to suspect Little Joe. Later on this playground provocation evolves into a far more sinister form of gaslighting, a psychological tactic used to manipulate others into doubting their own sanity. Cleverly and infuriatingly accurately portrayed is the reality that the true roadblock to Little Joe’s demise is not the plant itself, but everyday workplace sexism, that disavows women’s voices and often turns them against each other. This underlying feminine element, from Alice’s struggles with motherhood, to workplace harassment, highlights the subtle everyday micro-aggressions women face on a daily basis, and how this can have longterm, life changing consequences. In a post-#Metoo era, it’s important that we still continue to question and investigate the way in which women are treated in the work place, and Hausner’s film eloquently displays this and its monstrous effects.
Hausner ingeniously critiques workplace sexism and places women’s struggles at the heart of Little Joe, adding a unique twist to the long line of vegetal sci-fi horrors. However, despite its intentionally cold and clean set and costume design, Little Joe feels too bleached of any kind of emotional attachment at all, leaving audiences with a tale of motherly love that lacks human connection.
Little Joe is in cinemas from February 21st.
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