Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / The political ascent of Donald Trump and others like him has produced a glut of ominous allegories, and Austrian director Jessica Hausner’s mesmerizing film Little Joe may be the richest yet. With an unabashed nod to Invasion of the Body Snatchers (all three versions), the story’s contours are obvious, but it has finer points that are more obscure and rewarding, and the acting and dialogue are surgically targeted. Alice (Emily Beecham, best actress for this role at Cannes) is an ace plant breeder at the British bio-engineering company Plantworks. She comes up with a flower – Little Joe, named for her teenage son Joe (Kit Connor) – whose scent and other emissions make everyone just a little happier. But she skirts protocol and Little Joe mutates into something more sinister and controlling. Those affected are not euphoric but rather leveled out. Following crudely Darwinian instincts, they become obsessed with ensuring that Little Joe, the source of their bloodless contentment, flourishes. They blithely punish anyone who stands in their way.
Outwardly sedate but inwardly violent, these are the mechanics of not only pharmaceutical market power and addiction but also Trump’s normalization and more particularly the Republican Party’s zomboid cravenness. (John Bolton’s “drug deal” metaphor is more profound than he ever thought.) Distinctively, almost everything in the film is astringently attractive, like one of Jeff Koons’s pristine vacuum cleaner installations. The laboratory/greenhouse itself resembles a hermetic architectural project, with regiments of colorful plants – Little Joe is lurid red – set against a stark white background in a fastidiously designed and maintained building. Alice’s smitten colleague Chris (Ben Whishaw) is a tightly wrapped milquetoast, her striving supervisor Karl (David Wilmot) a born conformist; they’re hardwired to deny any change in their own or their co-workers’ emotional states. Only the mercurial Bella (Kerry Fox), who has a history of mental illness and valiantly cherishes her vulnerabilities, gets it, and gets hers.
Alice, tomboyish and ginger-haired, is a distracted and detached workaholic, her motherhood so incongruous as to appear a discreetly lamented mistake. Her psychotherapist (a slyly obtuse Lindsay Duncan) reinforces this viewpoint, and herself seems increasingly conspiratorial. Joe the son, also infected, is Alice’s only toehold on humanity. Is he or Little Joe her most precious offspring? By the time Little Joe triumphs in a Europe-wide breeding competition, the plant’s intoxicants have spread and any concerns about its development have evaporated into the shared narcotic mist. Alice seems to go along, but perhaps she has escaped it and merely fears mob suppression. As she proceeds in lockstep with her fellow scientists, her customarily blank gaze persists. Then, in a fleeting private moment, her mouth turns down into a nascent grimace. Maybe she’ll become a whistleblower.
Little Joe, directed and co-written by Jessica Hausner, distributed by Magnolia Pictures.