Little Joe (2019) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): Little flower of paranoia

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Jessica Hausner’s new film “Little Joe” is a dry, detached psychological thriller which tantalizes us with its intriguing premise in the beginning and then only leaves us in a little too much of ambiguity in the end. While it is slick and impeccable in terms of mood, style, and performance, the movie often meanders in case of story and character development, and we only come to observe it from the distance without much attention.

Emily Beecham, who won the Best Actress award when the movie was shown at the Cannes Film Festival early in this year, plays Alice Woodard, a professional plant breeder who has tried to develop a genetically modified plant species for an upcoming horticulture exposition. At the beginning, we see her and her colleague Chris (Ben Whishaw) working on their latest trial in a big greenhouse located inside a facility belonging to some big corporation, and we come to gather that their plant species is designed to generate a substance for making people feel happier.

After another team’s attempt is somehow failed, Alice’s plant species naturally draws more attention, and we soon get a striking visual moment as many of these genetically modified plants are reaching to their blossoming stage in the greenhouse. Although she and her colleagues take some necessary caution for possible allergens, Alice is confident that her project will be successful, and she even gives one of these plants to her pubescent son Joe (Kit Connor) although that is not allowed at all for safety.

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Of course, a series of weird things soon happen around Alice. A dog which has often comforted one of Alice’s colleagues in the facility begins to show behavioral changes, and that colleague comes to believe that the dog was sort of infected by Alice’s plants. Although that sounds pretty preposterous to Alice and other colleagues, Alice subsequently finds herself wondering whether she made a potentially dangerous plant species. After all, she broke a certain research regulation for developing her plant species, and it looks possible that her plants find a rather insidious way to overcome their inherent sterility and then survive via whatever is emitted from their bright red flowers.

While trying to be as rational as possible, Alice cannot help but become more disturbed as people around her feel a bit different than before. For example, Chris, who has had a crush on her for a long time, begins to approach to her a little more actively than before, and he also becomes more dedicated to taking care of her plants than before. In addition, her son also shows small but significant changes in his behavior and attitude, and that considerably affects her relationship with him.

Alice later confides her growing anxiety and disturbance to her psychiatrist, but that only makes her more confused than before. Is it possible that she is simply overreacting, considering that she has been occupied a bit too much with her ongoing work to pay enough attention to her son and other people around her? Is it conceivable that she is unconsciously afraid of how her son is changing in his body and mind day by day as entering his adolescence period?

As frequently toying with these and some other possibilities, the screenplay by Hausner and her co-writer Géraldine Bajard doles out a number of disturbing moments one by one. There is a calm but undeniably creepy scene where a certain supporting character happens to be locked alone inside the greenhouse along with Alice’s plants which are incidentally ready to blossom, and we later get a darkly humorous scene unfolded between Alice and her son, who has shown more changes including his increasingly intimate relationship with a female schoolmate of his.

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Surely reminiscent of “Invasion of the Body Snatcher” (1956) and other similar paranoid thriller films, the movie constantly unnerves us in more than one way. The strikingly red color of the flowers of Alice’s plants makes a strong visual contrast with the aseptic overall color scheme of the film, and the jarring avant-garde pieces of music by Japanese composer Teiji Ito always keep us on the edge whenever they are played on the soundtrack.

However, we do not get much satisfaction from the eventual arrival point of the story because it adamantly sticks to its ambiguity as usual without accumulating enough narrative momentum. Although Beecham and the other main cast members including Ben Whishaw and Kit Connor act as much as required by their respective roles, their good acting is often hampered by flat characterization, and we only become more distant to their characters even when the mood becomes a bit more intense later in the story.

On the whole, “Little Joe” is admirable to some degree, but it did not engage me enough, and, in my inconsequential opinion, it is a minor letdown compared to Hausner’s previous works including “Lourdes” (2009), which is as detached and ambiguous as “Little Joe” in many aspects but intrigued me nevertheless for the thoughtful handling of its religious subjects. Sure, I do not mind ambiguity at all, but “Little Joe” often frustrated me due to those underdeveloped potentials mired in its austere ambiguity, and it is a shame that the movie is not blossomed as fully as I hoped at first.

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