There has always been something sinister about the cross-pollination of human beings and plants, whether that’s plants behaving like humans, humans behaving like plants, humans looking like plants, or some variation thereof. You’ll find these themes memorably explored in films ranging from Day of the Triffids to Little Shop of Horrors to Annihilation. The film Little Joe is most likely to put you in mind of, though, is Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which features “pod people” – replicants of human beings grown in plant-like egg sacs and released into the world displaying a poor facsimile of the affect of a regular human being. At least the pod people here seem to be serenely, eerily happy.
That’s actually the goal of the bio-engineered flowers created by Alice (Emily Beecham), a scientist who seeks to bring a plant to market that’s almost more like a pet. These bright red plants, when they blossom, are meant to exude a pollen that makes their owners happy, but they only blossom with the right care – physically, such as consistent light, watering and temperature, but also emotionally, with their owners obliged to speak to them and provide them stimulation. It doesn’t sound like a bad idea until you consider all the forms “happiness” can possibly take.
The plants have been made sterile as a kind of fail-safe in case they were to get into the larger vegetation population, to prevent them from changing the ecosystem around them. But a bit like the floral version of H.A.L. 9000, these plants – nicknamed Little Joe after Alice’s son, Joe (Kit Connor) – have an impulse to survive through procreation. Since they’re not being exposed to any bees in the strictly controlled laboratory environment where they’re being grown, they have to resort to other methods, such as rapid spontaneous blossoming in unison, and squirting their pollen at unsuspecting cultivators in the area, like an unwanted blast of hypnotic perfume.
Alice realises something’s wrong when the plant she’s absconded with to her own home, strictly against protocol, seems to be having a strange affect on her son. Her colleague Chris (Ben Whishaw) is showing a similar emptiness of proper affect. And let’s not even talk about what happens to the dog belonging to Bella (Kerry Fox), another cultivator who senses something’s amiss from very early on.
Although this is Austrian director Jessica Hausner’s fifth feature length film, it’s her first in English with a cast of widely familiar actors, such as James Bond veteran Whishaw. So it functions as sort of an announcement of a new talent who has eluded most of us previously. And what a distinct announcement it is. She’s a real visionary, in numerous disparate cinematic ingredients she’s gathered together here.
Visually, her use of colour and her camera work compete equally for our attention. The film has a clinical colour scheme that is jolted by bursts of colour, not only the red Little Joes, but their blue predecessors, who ominously die when exposed to the new flower. Whether it’s the rich green cafeteria chairs or the panoply of nearby desserts that a person might select for their lunch tray, the film is consistently focusing our attention on its palette. The single most striking element in this scheme is Beecham’s Alice, whose red hair sits atop her head like a dollop of orange sorbet, and whose turquoise blouse and earrings burst forth from her clean white lab coat.
Martin Gschlacht’s camera has a habit of drifting slowly and ominously through each scene, wordlessly taking in rows of flowers with the same clinical disinterest as the people who tend to them. His lens will steadily withdraw from a scene or push into it, sometimes to the point where the characters on either edge of the frame will disappear from view, leaving a focal point of something seemingly insignificant on the wall. It’s almost like the psychotic personality of the plant itself is exploring its environment with a kind of dead-eyed curiosity.
Then you’ve got the score, which is from Japanese composer Teiji Ito, originally written for Maya Deren’s experimental films of the 1950s. Its discordant notes, mixed with high-pitched tones and what sounds like the laughter of insane children, keep up the sense of creepiness that suffuses the whole project.
Thematically, Little Joe is maybe not quite so interesting, but it kind of doesn’t need to be. Hausner explores Alice’s role as a mother, both to her biological son and to the plants she has sequenced into existence, but she doesn’t hit those themes with any real conviction. This is not first and foremost a film of ideas, but rather, a disquieting mood setter that’s probably best described as sci-fi horror. Do not expect many big gestures, either – this is a film that worms under your skin and discomfits you, a kind of singular experience of encroaching dread.
There’s one idea that might resonate, actually, and that’s this notion of what it means to be happy. The people exposed to Alice’s plant think they’re happy, but is thinking you’re happy the same as being so? Do we want such an even keel to be our standard behavioural mode? People who take mood stabilising drugs may have something to say about that, or those of us who love them might have something to say about who they become when they’re on their meds. The mood of Little Joe, though, is one any fan of unnerving independent cinema should strive for.
Little Joe is currently playing in Australian cinemas.