Little Joe

Year: 2019
Production Co: Coop99 Filmproduktion
Director: Jessica Hausner
Writer: Jessica Hausner
Cast: Emily Beecham, Ben Wishaw, Kerry Fox

The production designer, cinematographer and director do a slightly better job than the screenwriter (even though director Jessica Hausner co-wrote it).

Evoking such streamlined, bold colour contrast films like One Hour Photo, Ex Machina and a host of others that skirt the knife edge of being over-designed, every frame looks great, with Hausner and her creative team building a world that's visually stark and arresting in the way it uses lines versus curves, light versus shade and colours that look gorgeous together.

It's a shame the story isn't nearly as disciplined or confident. It's either the near future or the bleeding edge of the present at a commercial plant breeding lab, and one of the projects, led by the cute but straight laced Alice (Emily Beecham), is a flower that needs more care than most but exudes a pheromone that makes its owner happy.

Encouraged by the results, Alice takes one of the plants – which she and her team have dubbed Little Joe – home to see how it works on her own son, also named Joe. At first everything seems okay until some creepy stuff starts to happen. A co-worker who was working on a less successful project, Bella (I didn't recognise Kerry Fox), is acting strangely.

The Little Joes in the hermetically sealed growing room start to pollinate huge amounts, something nobody thought possible because they were bred to be sterile.

At home, Joe's behaviour changes too, and Alice wonders what she's unleashed, eventually learning that the plants might have mutated a virus they infect humans with as a defence mechanism to cause their owners to take extra special care of them.

One by one, co-workers and her own family members seem to fall under the spell, all while Bella tries to warn Alice what danger they've unleashed.

There's a thriller element, but it's played so languorously and over such a long time and never really breaks into more than a few fisticuffs, so even though it's a pleasure to watch because of how well designed and shot it all is, neither the stakes nor the drama ever get very high.

Oddly enough, there's a link to M Night Shyamalan's much maligned 2008 thriller The Happening. Even though this film isn't any more creatively successful than that one, they both have a pretty great horror movie idea at the centre – that plants can evolve natural survival processes that can influence and affect the safety and self-preservation reflexes of humans.

It just needed a better told story than this to make that point.

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