‘Little Joe’ review: slow-burning sci-fi about super-powered plants eventually bears fruit

Filled with quiet moments of deep reflection, Ben Whishaw's latest tackles difficult issues like corporate influence and mental health

With films, as with people, sometimes it’s the quiet ones you’ve got to watch. Little Joe arrives without fanfare or controversy but with a lead performance that won Emily Beecham best actress at Cannes and the growing reputation of Austrian director Jessica Hausner (Amour Fou, Lourdes).

Beecham plays Alice, a single mother working as a skilled and dedicated horticulturalist at a corporation developing new plant species. Alice has created a striking red flower that, if treated with care, can make its owner happy. But is that all it does? Having named the plant Little Joe after her son (Kit Connor – young Elton John in Rocketman), she breaks protocol and takes one home to him as a gift. Soon, Alice’s colleague Bella (Kerry Fox) thinks she sees suspicious personality changes in her dog Bello that she attributes to the new plant, which otherwise proves a hit with their employers. Meanwhile, colleague Chris (Ben Whishaw, best known for voicing Paddington and playing Q in recent Bond films) appears to be falling in love with Alice, just as Joe begins to hit it off with classmate Selma (Jessie Mae Alonzo).

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For a film with a lot happening under the surface, Little Joe rarely, if ever, reveals much in the way of ferocity or volume. It’s a work of subtlety and mood rather than overblown drama. A minutely calibrated line reading here or a shift of the body there are more important to Hausner than histrionics. While its most obvious influences may be classic sci-fi epics Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Day of the Triffids, it has a chilly, austere tone that may be too cold and unfriendly for some viewers.

Little Joe
Emily Beecham and Ben Whishaw in ‘Little Joe’. Credit: Alamy

As work-obsessed Alice, Beecham is throughly deserving of her Cannes triumph. It’s not a showy part – a mother who juggles motherhood, a busy job and several layers of emotional uncertainty –  but her deft, nuanced performance is well complemented by the consistently impressive Whishaw. Elsewhere, Fox (who plays Bella) offers a new take on the classic “Am I crazy or is everyone else?” trope, but here it feels fresh and interesting.

To marshal a film of quiet moments and deep, potentially ambiguous meaning is perhaps as difficult a job as tackling monster egos and gargantuan budgets. Here, Hausner proves she has the chops for both, while her intelligent, thoughtful film poses questions about everything from corporate influence to motherhood to mental health. Little Joe may end up having the same affect on audiences as its titular plants – increased happiness all around.

  • Director: Jessica Hausner
  • Starring: Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox
  • Release date: 21 February 2020
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