Little Joe (4 stars)

Little Joe

Cannes 2019: Eye-catching, botanically themed sci-fi from Jessica Hausner that keeps you guessing

Balancing work and motherhood is one of the many dilemmas single mum and scientist Alice (Emily Beecham) is facing. She's speaking to a therapist about it, but is struggling with severe guilt for wanting to spend more time at the lab than with her teenage son Joe (Kit Connor). Then there's the worry that the plant she has created, Little Joe, may be affecting those who have been exposed to it by changing their personalities in a very subtle manner. The gorgeous crimson thistle-like flower emits a scent proven to make people happy but, when Alice's co-worker Bella (Kerry Fox) suggests something sinister is occurring, alarm bells start ringing.

With scientific progress comes ethical debate and clashing opinions, something which Austrian director Jessica Hausner (Lourdes) does not shy away from in this eye-catching sci-fi, co-written with Géraldine Bajard. It's a confrontational and chilling brainteaser that covers a multitude of thorny themes, concerning familial bonds, companionship, the impact of mood-altering drugs and toxic attitudes towards mental health.

Hausner has crafted a strange hybrid of Little Shop of Horrors and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with its own distinct aesthetic. From the sterile mint green walls to the mustards of Alice's attire, the director's world-building demonstrates a fine attention to detail in a film that oozes oppression, as paranoia and passive aggressiveness take hold.

Colleague Chris (Ben Whishaw) confides to Alice in hushed tones that Bella once suffered a breakdown, displaying an insidious prejudice, despite his words to the contrary. Still, Bella's suspicions sow the seeds of doubt and Alice begins to question whether her changing relationship with her son is down to the wicked weed, or the fact that he is growing up and moving on. Hausner keeps the viewer guessing as to whether the plant is up to no good, or if it's all, simply, in Alice's head.

Screening as part of the Cannes Film Festival 2019. General release TBC.

Little Joe

  • 4 stars
  • 2019
  • Austria / UK / Germany
  • Directed by: Jessica Hausner
  • Cast: Emily Beecham, Kit Connor, Kerry Fox, Ben Whishaw

Alice (Beecham) is a single mum and scientist struggling with guilt for wanting to spend more time at the lab than with her teenage son (Connor). Eye-catching sci-fi from Austrian director Hausner, concerning familial bonds, companionship and mental health; a confrontational and chilling brainteaser.