Alice (Emily Beecham), an esteemed scientist and plant breeder, thinks she may have found the solution to the world’s problems – a particular type of flower that can make its owner happy. Created through a special blend of DNA, she believes that by keeping the plant watered, warm and loved, it will ‘give back’ to the carer and make them happy.
Nicknamed after Alice’s teenage son (played by Rocketman‘s Kit Connor), ‘Little Joe’ is set to make a lot of people happier – and richer. But what’s that eerie feeling lingering in the air? And all of that pollen…
While Alice set out to create something that would benefit people around the world, it seems Little Joe has other plans. When Alice’s colleague Chris (Ben Whishaw) – tasked with helping to look after the plants – starts acting strangely, Alice doesn’t think anything of it. Joe soon follows, becoming possessive of his own plant, forcing school friend Selma (Jessie Mae Alonzo) to take a big sniff so she can understand how he feels about it, too. And they’re not the only ones, with other colleagues around the lab acting out of character, too odd for Alice’s liking. What follows is a tense 105 minutes as we watch Alice’s plans for Little Joe spiral out of control, while real Joe distances himself further from his mother, finding comfort in caring for the plant instead.
Directed by Austrian-born Jessica Hausner, this is her eighth time behind the camera, known for other titles such as Toast (2006), Lourdes (2009) and Amour Fou (2014). Also written by Hausner, you can feel the level of care and attention that’s gone into crafting the story and characters. Sold as a ‘drama sci-fi’, there’s a level of thrill in there, too; we’re on edge throughout, waiting for something, someone to strike, that feeling intensified through the repetitive, high-pitched sound effects and clean simple cinematography and set design. It’s almost too perfect to be real, so we wait for something to strike, to break the tension.
Beecham, seen previously in Daphne (2017), Hail, Caesar! (2016) and episodes of various British TV dramas, is a solid lead. Her expressive features do the talking, as Hausner’s script takes the subtle, sometimes silent route. Alice, seen at the start as aloof, a workaholic who can’t cook, who visits a therapist to talk about her colleagues, isn’t particularly likeable but by the end credits Beecham has made us sympathise with her – while we may not understand her actions, we feel for her as she loses control of her passion-project (and her life). Winner of the Best Actress award at Cannes 2019, Beecham’s subtlety pays off, and partnered with the suspense-filled score it leaves the viewer on edge. Whishaw is, as expected, also great but sadly underused.
But with no big pay-off, a script so slow-paced it feels quite stilted with a weak supporting cast, I left Little Joe not feeling anything. In the moment it’s tense, but once the end credits rolled any feelings leftover just dissolved. An interesting concept but not enough meat in the script, story or characters to leave you wanting more.