Cannes 2019: Little Joe

Little Joe is an unnerving horror movie about a flower that's been designed in a lab to help curb depression, but it turns out to have sinister side-effects

Film Review by Iana Murray | 20 May 2019
  • Little Joe
Film title: Little Joe
Director: Jessica Hausner
Starring: Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kit Connor, Kerry Fox, Phénix Brossard

It is in the laws of nature, nestled next to 'what goes up, must come down', that whenever a film involves a science experiment, that experiment will go disastrously wrong. From Frankenstein to The Fly to Jurassic Park, cinema has long argued that when you try to bend the world to your will, the world bites back. So is the case with chilling sci-fi Little Joe, the English language debut of Austrian director Jessica Hausner.

The aforementioned experiment is a genetically engineered flower developed by plant breeders Alice (Emily Beecham) and Chris (Ben Whishaw). It works as a sort of organic antidepressant – water it, nurture it, talk to it, and in return the plant will make you happy. Alice christens it as Little Joe, named after her son, to whom she secretly gifts one of the specimens. Things go awry when Alice notices that Little Joe’s pollen is affecting people’s brains, including her son's. They’re happy, but not the way she intended, and slowly everyone around Alice becomes hollow shells of their former selves.    

Hausner orchestrates a masterclass in simmering dread. The pristine, antiseptic feel of the lab is transposed for every location, giving this vision of London a dystopian edge. The camera will move in snail-pace pans and zooms, never stopping even when it pushes the actors out of frame. The score provides a disturbing accompaniment to Alice’s increasing urgency.

Little Joe is a horror movie, but not in the traditional sense. In lieu of jump scares and ghouls, Hausner depicts a more insidious type of terror. It’s the slow onslaught of dread that creeps in and never relents. Monsters hide in plain sight – an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-type mutation. Little Joe is the best kind of genre film because Hausner understands that the greatest fear is losing autonomy, when your feelings are no longer yours.

Little Joe had its world premiere at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival – for more Cannes coverage, click here

Follow Iana Murray on Twitter at @ianamurray