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Cinema/TV, Film Notes

Film review – Little Joe

My notes on Little Joe.

An interesting, disturbing, delicate remix of Invasion of the Body Snatchers from director Jessica Hausner – who also co-wrote with Geraldine Bajard – this makes very bold choices.  It’s often said that if certain technical aspects of filmmaking are noticeable, then the movie isn’t commanding the attention enough – but here Hausner lets art direction, costuming (the greenish-white labcoats with green buttons are attractive yet unsettling), editing and needle-drop score tracks (percussive Japanese nightmare music by Teiji Ito) make points, while requiring an interesting cast mostly to underplay even before they’re infected by pollen that turns them into pod people.

In an airy, light laboratory, team leader Alice Woodard (Emily Beecham) and admiring colleague Chris (Ben Whishaw) work on a new strain of genetically-engineered houseplant, which requires a lot of care and attention and talking to but rewards its owner with a lovely perfume and also a semi-addictive pollen that affects the limbic region.  Alice names the plant Little Joe after her teenage son Joe (Kit Connor), which suggests why she needs a therapist (Linday Duncan) to cope with her work-life balance.  She proudly brings a Little Joe home and presents it to her son.  Of course, the sinister red flowers have their own agenda – they start off by taking out a competitor blue flower project and then the much-loved pet dog of sceptic Bella (Kerry Fox).  Workmates initially hostile to LJ are won over, and Joe not only lets his ant farm die but aquires an equally LJ-smitten girlfriend Selma (Jessie Mae Alonzo).  Chris, who has been trying to get Alice to notice him, shifts his priorities and is always looking out for the plant now.  Even Bella retracts her charges that the pollen rewires human brains to mute all emotions but protectiveness of the plant, but Alice – who has used some unethical viral elements in the plant-cultivation – begins to seem like the sole unwon-over hold-out.

The Invasion of the Body Snatchers premise is so deeply embedded that there’s a even a medical term for the irrational belief that people have been replaced by lookalikes – Capgras Syndrome.  This variant advances with quiet conviction, hitting expected beats and scenes from Jack Finney’s novel and many adaptations and derivatives … but also lightly sending them up, as some of the infectees try to persuade Alice that things are all right by making fun of her delusions by acting out the role of zombie while genuinely being one.  Alonzo, especially, is hilariously creepy and would be even if she were just being overly polite to her boyfriend’s Mum.  An aspect of Finney’s The Body Snatchers which is usually dropped in films is that the pod people don’t walk about in a trance but are capable of simulating human emotions – even humour – as a form of protective colouring.  Viewed from the perspective of a mother who might expect to be shut out of her growing son’s world (and room), this is an especially maddening and chilling prospect.  Beecham, physically transformed and in a role very different from her breakout turn in Daphne, conveys how excruciating the situation is for Alice, who has repressed emotions and shown devotion to the plant even without being infected and now finds people who used not to be like her have disturbingly taken on her own traits.

Little Joe itself – a bud that periodically expands into scarlet puffball on a thick kinked stem – is a minimalist accessory of a plant, but horribly convincing as a quiet threat … and as a product likely to catch on with a certain demographic.  Hauser addresses some of the science fiction implications of the creation as well as its use as a trigger for exploration of perhaps universal feelings of estrangement and anomie.

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