Little Joe (2019)
Writer & Director: Jessica Hausner
I was initially turned off of this movie –and maybe you were, too — when it first appeared in the U.S. in late 2019. It got mixed reviews, including a lot of pans, and I lost track of it in the rush of end-of-the-year releases. I was reminded of when it turned up on Pedro Almodovar’s list of the best movies of 2020 and then, when I saw that it was streaming on Hulu, I decided to give it a try, and I’m so glad I did. It’s an eerie story about the ways humans try to control the natural world, and at first it seems like it’s going to be a high-concept commentary on the danger of GMOS. But then it turns into a kind of meditation on the nature of perception and reality. I can see why a lot of viewers would find it frustrating, but I would have watched it for the color scheme alone.
You can see the precision of the art direction in the still above, which shows the alluring scarlet flower known as “Little Joe.” The woman in the mint-green lab coat is Alice (Emily Beecham), the botanist who has engineered Little Joe to emit a fragrance that makes people happy and compels its owners to care for it. The plant is meant to be a kind of anti-depressant product, but there’s something strange about it, from the outset. Is Little Joe dangerous? Is Little Joe seductive? I loved how these questions are suggested by the set and costume design, which is dominated by green and red. The greens are often unnatural-looking — not the muddy or sunny greens of outdoors, but the chemically-enhanced greens of toothpaste or M&M candies. Red is often a color of danger and warning, and in contrast to all the greens, the red of Little Joe seems especially lurid.
Alice has named her plant Joe after her teenage son, Joe, and in a strange breech of protocol, she brings a Little Joe plant home to him, so he can receive its therapeutic benefits. When he begins to feel the effects of the plant, it’s so subtle that she doesn’t initially notice that anything has changed. It’s only when a dog breaks into the lab and undergoes behavioral changes that Alice begins to think that something is amiss –but she can’t be sure, and neither can the viewer, even as more odd things start to happen. The trick is that nothing is wildly different; no one is rabid, no one is sick. But something seems off. Alice and her colleagues begin to wear masks in the presence of the plant, so as not to breathe in the pollen, but Alice is still wary around the plants. It’s a mood that feels so familiar after a year of pandemic life, when we walk around knowing there is a contagion in the air.
The mood of this movie is unique. You’re never sure where you stand. The soundtrack is full of bizarre woodwinds and dog barks. There are also a lot of silences. Interpersonal interactions between Alice and her colleagues and Alice and her son can feel banal and familiar in one moment and then suddenly pivot into something unfamiliar and strange. I’m not at all sure I would have liked this movie as much if I’d seen it back in 2019, but right now, when daily life still feels fraught with unexpected tensions and anxieties, Little Joe has a subtle, unnerving prescience.