Little Joe (2019, Jessica Hausner)

Didn’t know what to make of this plant-based Body Snatchers movie, with its very controlled look, slow pans, and obvious script. Corporate botanists create a plant that makes its owner happy, a horror Brain Candy, emitting the “mother hormone,” like a mother bonding with her son. They name it Little Joe, after lead geneticist Emily Beecham’s son Joe (shades of “Audrey II”). Paranoia is high about the plant’s mind-altering properties. When an older scientist (Kerry Fox of Shallow Grave and Intimacy) finds her dog affected by the plant, she has it put to sleep, saying it was “not my dog anymore.” Emily: “What do you mean?” “You’ll see.”

Joe and Little Joe:

Emily’s coworker Ben Whishaw (Cloud Atlas, frail poet of Bright Star) is the earliest and most apparently affected, and his whispering collaborator, feather-haired Rick, edits out the tape of pollen test participants’ comments about personality change. Emily hardly does any better herself, taking a plant home and telling people it’s definitely safe from her sample size of two people, while her ex, Joe’s dad, tells her he’s not the boy he used to be. Ben and Rick eventually change tactics, saying they’ve been pretending as a gag, and Joe tells her “this is normal at my age,” while Emily tries the proven pod-people technique of pretending to be already affected, and Kerry Fox fulfills the role of the alarmist who gets “accidentally” killed.

L-R: boss Carl, Rick, Emily, Ben

It’s not like the characters are living their normal lives and the plant paranoia gradually takes over before everyone realizes it, or they have anything else going on – all the dialogue is about this one thing, whether or not the plant is invading minds. An extremely watchable movie, with a massive soundtrack and great visual design (their green coat buttons match the chairs!) High-pitched cricket whistle on the score with flute underneath wasn’t optimal for watching on a whiny airplane, but when the whining lets up, the flute with sharp drum hits and a cacophony of barking dogs is wonderful. The camera sometimes zooms into the wall in the background between two people conversing, odd visual and aural tactics within such a single-minded story. Beecham won best actress at Cannes – this is the seventh movie I’ve seen from competition, hoping to catch The Whistlers and Bacurau and The Wild Goose Lake soon.

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