Little Joe (2019)
Little Joe is a British/Austrian/German-produced film that was selected to compete at the Cannes Film Festival 2019. In this story, Alice Woodard (Emily Beecham) works at a special laboratory that produces genetically-modified flowers for the public market. Alice and her team have managed to produce one type of a plant that requires much attention from their owners, but, in return, is alleged to “make them happy”. The story takes a disturbing turn when Alice takes one of those new plants (flowers) home, gifts it to her son, Joe, and begins to worry that the pollen that the new flower produces may be infecting people in a sinister way. Probably. If that sounds a bit random and confusing, it is because it is, and the film never makes anything in this story compelling or clearer. Though, at first, the idea behind Little Joe sounds intriguing and the memorable production design does leave an impression, overall, Little Joe is nothing more than a very preposterous, excruciatingly dull and badly-acted picture that, in comparison, will make any episode of a British series EastEnders an immediate Oscar winner.
On the face of it, Little Joe does have an intriguing premise. “We are entering a new era here, the first mood-lifting, anti-depressant happy plant…that’s fit for market”, says one of the staff members that works at the laboratory together with Alice. He says this while pointing at some flower stems in various pots. The plot is related to a very topical issue since nowadays many people are worried about genetically-modified foodstuffs, and afraid of the potential of artificial intelligence and of the consequences of a fast-advancing progress in science and nanotechnology. A book by John Wyndham – The Day of the Triffids comes to mind since the “harmless” plants in the story may as well make rather dangerous “pets” at home.
In Little Joe, the flowers seem to be blooming and Alice’s team is confident it can exhibit them in the near future at an important international event. Then, the dog gets accidentally locked up together with these new special flowers at the laboratory and starts to exhibit strange symptoms. At this point, one wonders if Little Joe does not want to follow the plotline of Alien (1979), and whether the flowers in the story do not demonstrate their predatory and selfish nature. Unfortunately, the film is far more trivial than that, following a rather boring and “done-to-death” character study of Alice, who is growing worried and paranoid about the flowers. We are shown some awkward romance between Alice and her colleague Chris (Ben Whishaw), and her son’s girlfriend enters the picture. All this is rather random and almost irrelevant to the story, while the film becomes filled with very predictable turns.
The worst thing about Little Joe is that the story is not about the strange flower at all – essentially. It is about what people think about the new flower (does it affect other people?) and whether their suspicions are correct. We are dragged through these suspicions in the film, which become quite laughable, and most of the time, are very tedious to watch. The plant’s alleged production of happiness is hardly explained or referred to again in the story, and if you substitute this flower in the story for some infected ring or a simple virus (see a better film Contagion (2011)), it would still be this unbearable film. To make matters worse, the film’s sound design is annoying, and, apart from Emily Beecham, who is good as Alice, watching everyone else’s acting is like watching you local amateur acting group staging their first production. There is a feeling that every actor in Little Joe knows there is a camera in the room with them, and the audience just feels sorry for them.
Little Joe does have some interesting moments, but they do not last long, and what the film thinks is “unsettling” towards the finish ends up to be downright funny. The production could not have made Little Joe more preposterous even if they tried. Perhaps Little Joe would have fared better as a short.
”What this plant really needs is love”, says the character of Chris in the film, and maybe Little Joe, as a film, also needs that love and that is why it was so conveniently titled. Only to deserve this love and admiration, the film needs slightly more than worried-looking people and a bunch of red flowers. I will put it frankly – Little Joe is one of the worst films I have seen in recent years. I normally enjoy relatively small productions that focus on thought-provoking/science-fiction/psychological horror issues (see my reviews of Antiviral (2012) or The Babadook (2014) – the former also has the setting of a clinic and the latter has the same theme of a mother-son relationship). However, Little Joe ends up to be so excruciatingly awkward, so unforgivably contrived and so downright boring that I can only give it a score of 3/10.