It was only a matter of time before Jessica Hausner’s clinical visual style was applied to science-fiction. In Little Joe, the Austrian director’s first feature in the English-language, her deliberately artificial aesthetic seeps into the very topics of the story.
Emily Beecham plays Alice, a plant breeder at a corporation that is creating new strains of plants. She is also the single mother of well-behaved teenager Joe (Kit Connor) and the two are close, even though she tends to work long hours.
Everything is going well, and Alice even has a prospective boyfriend in her colleague Chris (Ben Whishaw). And yet, the scientist is developing a new breed of flowers aimed at making their owners happier. All that it asks for in return are regular supplies of water, warmth, and attention in order to survive.
The metaphor is obvious to the viewer and to the characters themselves, and soon, Alice calls her creation ‘Little Joe’ after the name of her own son.
Unfortunately, what comes next is just as obvious and expected: after Alice brings one of the flowers home for her son, he soon begins to act differently, as do all the other scientists who work with the plant without a protective mask on, and their behaviour immediately brings Invasion Of The Body Snatchers to mind.
But even without this hunch, the story remains bewilderingly predictable. It is even signposted, with Alice regularly spelling out her doubts and worries to her psychiatrist. It is a strangely perfunctory way of making sure we get what is going on, but more dispiriting is the way it is used to introduce the idea of gaslighting: could it be that Alice is the one losing her mind? This is not something we actually feel, but something we are told, and after faintly suggesting the idea of a big twist, the film returns to its more logical, anticipated conclusion.
With little to chew on in terms of suspense and a metaphor that fails to send the mind reeling, the eye drifts towards the set design. But as the well-ironed, colour-coordinated outfits of the cast and the monochrome sets simply reiterate the thematic of ‘real versus artificial life’ already explored in the story, even the film’s visual style feels like a patronising explanation of Little Joe’s simple metaphor.
Little Joe is out on DVD and Blu-ray today.