The ideas present in Little Joe are big, bold and thought-provoking. Their execution though is more of a maddening experience, with writer/director Jessica Hausner opting for an insightful slow burn that is perhaps a little too droll for its own good.
In an eerily organised facility, scientist Alice Woodward (Emily Beecham) is on the verge of a breakthrough with a new strain of flower she has created. A genetic experiment, she dubs this creation “Little Joe” – so named after her young son, Joe (Kit Connor) – and quickly learns that the pollen it emits is one that seems to put people at an immediate ease and evoke a sense of happiness.
Initially pleased with the flower’s results, Alice smuggles one home in a bid to lightly influence the lifestyle of herself and Joe, whilst her colleagues – particularly the suspicious Bella (Kerry Fox) – question the method behind its creation. The notion that a flower could greatly alter the outlook of a person is one that certainly lends itself to a horror setting – though, thankfully, the environmental terror manifested in M. Night Shyamalan’s clumsy The Happening isn’t recreated here – and the film asks many a question which, sadly, Hausner has no intent on answering.
Open endings and unanswered questions don’t necessarily upset a film’s overall standing, but there seems to be such a faithfulness to the mood of the film that the underlaying substance is severely lacking to the point that Little Joe loses any intrigue it suggests. There’s a tension to the way it’s filmed – some sequences let the main focus of action slip out of frame – and the stilted score further adds to the unrest Hausner wants to create, but any closure to the menace that is gradually built is secondary to an atmosphere that, whilst effective, belongs in a, dare I say, better film.
A cold film film that acts as something of a subtle commentary on the over-modification of supplementary requirements, Little Joe is certainly smart science-fiction (which is always welcome) but it’s also a taxing chore. There’s an impressiveness throughout without question, it just can’t help but waste its potential with a sobering mentality that almost renders itself comatose.
Little Joe is screening in select Australian theatres from July 1st, 2021.