Little Joe

Review by Rich Cline | 3/5

Little Joe
dir Jessica Hausner
scr Geraldine Bajard, Jessica Hausner
prd Philippe Bober, Bertrand Faivre, Martin Gschlacht, Jessica Hausner, Gerardine O'Flynn, Bruno Wagner
with Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox, Kit Connor, Lindsay Duncan, David Wilmot, Phenix Brossard, Sebastian Hulk, Jessie Mae Alonzo, Leanne Best, Goran Kostic, Yana Yanezic
release UK Oct.19 lff,
Aut 1.Nov.19, US 6.Dec.19
19/Austria 1h45

fox duncan brossard
london film fest

beecham and whishaw
There's a cleverly unnerving tone to this subtly artful thriller, which combines science-fiction elements with the undercurrents of an old-fashioned monster movie. Austrian filmmaker Jessica Hausner keeps the lights bright and the colours garish all the way through, yet still creates a relentless sense of tension as characters try to work out if something truly horrible is afoot.
In a high-tech genetics lab, Alice (Beecham) and her colleague Chris (Whishaw) have created a breed of flower that improves human moods with its pollen. Coworkers Bella and Karl (Fox and Wilmot) suspect that Alice's red flower, named Little Joe after her son (Connor), has poisoned their blue variety just as a big show is coming. Bella also thinks that Little Joe's pollen is having an effect on her dog's personality, and thinks people are changing too. But as Alice wonders to her therapist (Duncan), is everyone around her changing, or is it her?
Seen through Alice's eyes, the changes in the people are almost imperceptible. Chris becomes a little more amorous than normal, and Joe is more independent-minded, but that could be puberty. Hausner's crew cleverly designs everything in a heightened way that seems almost surreal, from the dissonant soundscape to the vibrant hues of costumes, sets and props. Even Alice's red hair adds to the colour scheme. And sets vary from the ultra-modern greenhouse to Alice's 19th century British terrace house to the wild country home of her ex-husband (Hulk).

Each cast member plays his or her role with this heightened sensibility. Conversations are hesitant and fraught with subtext, as are the way people interact within the settings. Beecham anchors the film nicely as a woman who seems to be the only sane person left on earth, although she has her doubts. Fox is a standout as the mercurial Bella, while Whishaw fills his scenes with offhanded but uneasy charm. And Connor is terrific as the young teen with his own possibly sinister agenda.

But then everything in this film feels sinister. And if Hausner had been more willing to tip over into just a bit of grisliness the film might have had a chance to become a cult classic. As is, it feels a little too safe, never quite seizing its themes or pushing the ideas over the top, where they clearly belong. Although it's still good fun, a properly chilling bit of well-lit horror.

cert 15 themes, language, violence 1.Oct.19 lff

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© 2019 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall