In Little Joe, Alice (Emily Beecham) is a botanist working as a plant breeder for a corporation dedicated to putting new and exciting strains of plants on the market. Her latest project is a flower that is notable not only for its beauty, but because it emits a hormone that registers in the human body and will make those around it happy.
Against company protocol, she brings one of the plants home as a gift for her son, Joe (Kit Connor). Together, they name the strain "Little Joe," and Alice prepares for the inevitable success of the project. As the plants continue to grow, however, Alice becomes concerned that the creation may not be as benign as she first thought. When a colleague's dog begins acting strangely after inhaling some of Little Joe's pollen, she begins to wonder if the plant might have additional side effects in addition to just good feelings.
Co-written and directed by Jessica Hausner, the film examines some interesting themes like the parent-child bond, how we change as we grow and develop, and our obsession with chemically induced happiness, all within the guise of a bodysnatchers plot.
The film is stunning to watch; Hausner employs a very observational eye and never hesitates to let the camera rest on specific details of a scene. Nothing moves too quickly, and the slow camera movement nicely sets the tone for the film. Little Joe is all about questions. It calls out the possibility of the plant having an adverse effect on humans more than it provides incontrovertible evidence. In fact, it plays it so close to the line that it also brings up feelings of paranoia, on both the part of Alice and the part of the audience. It's a very refreshing take on this subgenre, allowing the possibility of the question to cause more disquiet than the actual outcome.
While several characters could be under the effect of the plants, the character in the spotlight the most is Joe himself. Alice has raised him largely as a single mother, and though he has sporadic contact with his father, Alice is his primary parental figure. When we meet Joe, he is beginning to transition into adulthood. He becomes more interested in spending time with his friends at school, particularly with a female love interest, than he does with Alice. Though Alice has never been a particularly doting mother, the pair has a connection, though her work is equally important in her life. When Joe begins to stretch away from their established dynamic, she worries that this could be the influence of the plant, rather than her son's natural development. It's an interesting angle that thoughtfully contemplates the nature of the parent-child bond and how personalities and relationships naturally change over time. Though, within the context of this story, we are left to wonder if what we are witnessing is a natural development or the influence of the plant.
As effective as Hausner’s camerawork and storytelling is, in this particular tale, the stakes feel rather low. It could be the reserved and measured way we observe the possible effects of Little Joe, or maybe the fact that, if real, the plant’s effects aren’t world-ending, but by the end of the film, as well-told as the story is, we don’t necessarily feel as horrified by its possibilities as we once did. But then again, maybe that was Little Joe’s plan all along.
Movie Score: 3/5