Alice Woodard (Emily Beecham) is a horticulturalist working to develop a new type of houseplant that require more regular care, but responds by secreting calming and pleasant chemicals into the home. When the prototype plants begin to aggressively pollinate – despite being bred as sterile – Alice begins to realise her invention is having an unintended effect.
One of the great writers of science fiction was the late John Wyndham, whose novels such as The Day of the Triffids and The Midwich Cuckoos. His most significant achievement, to my mind at least, was the manner in which he developed what fellow author Brian Aldiss described as ‘the cozy catastophe’. Another term for this literary style is ‘the slow apocalypse’: an unknown alien terror begins to creep into everyday society, and does so in such an insidious fashion that by the time the population realise they are in peril it is almost too late to avoid disaster. It is a very grounded style of story, in which the uncanny punctures the seemingly calm surrounds of an ordinary world.
Little Joe is a deeply Wyndham-esque film, and that it entirely to its benefit. It works with a deliberately measured pace and a slow, emotionally detached style to gradually bring its characters and world to their knees. A passive invasion of the world by what is an essentially static antagonist has been attempted before of course, notably in M. Night Shyamalan’s deeply uneven apocalypse thriller The Happening (2008), but here the mixture between the precise and the inferred is managed much better. Where Shyamalan’s depiction of trees inciting humans to commit suicide has shock value, the broadly similar effect in Little Joe is far more subtle. The innate essence of Wyndham’s style, whether intentionally or coincidentally, is perfectly captured.
Director Jessica Hausner, who co-wrote the film with Geraldine Bajard, maintains a tight control over the film’s overall aesthetic. The production design, set and costume are all superbly constrained. Little Joe presents a carefully managed, almost anodyne environment in which the dangers of Alice’s creepy little red flowers (named Little Joe after her own son) go so easily unnoticed. It all helps to create a strong rising tension: the audience works well ahead of the protagonists.
Emily Beecham is excellent as Alice, as is Ben Whishaw as her studious colleague Chris. New Zealander actor Kerry Fox is a particular stand-out as Bella, a colleague who is quick to notice something in the laboratory is amiss, but whose history of mental illness ensures her concerns go entirely unconsidered.
Little Joe appears to have flown somewhat under the radar with critics and audiences, despite starting off as a 2019 contender for Cannes’ Palme D’Or. I wonder if the lax critical response stems from its awkward position, straddling a gulf between arthouse and genre cinema. The science fiction and horror fans will not notice it because it is situated outside of their purview, while the arthouse crowd will ignore it because it sounds like a ‘low’ science fiction thriller. It is a deep shame; this subtle, insidious science fiction thriller deserves an appreciative audience.