A “mood-lifting, antidepressant, happy plant”, aptly named little Joe, is the main character of this sci-fi drama. Alice (Emily Beecham) and her colleague Chris (Ben Wishaw) head a team of plant breeders at a corporation dedicated to developing new species of plants. Little Joe, named after Alice’s young son (Kit Connor), is their most innovative project; a bright-red blooming flower created to give off a scent that can make people happier. Against company policy, Alice decides to take one of these plants home as a gift to her son.
Little Joe, directed by Austrian filmmaker Jessica Hausner, has been compared to the 1978 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers; taking from it the concept of a foreign species overtaking human beings, robbing them of the very essence that makes them who they are. The first signs of trouble appear when another botanist’s beloved dog begins to act aggressively toward her. Her theory about the plant infecting people in order to continue to reproduce is perceived as simple paranoia. Alice’s trust in her own creation begins to crumble as the at-first indiscernible changes in the people around her become increasingly more volatile.
The urgency with which Beecham portrays Alice, the terror she feels about the repercussions little Joe’s mutations will have on the human species, is not matched in the performances of the rest of the cast (apart from Kerry Fox’s incredibly nuanced portrayal of Bella). Nothing about the way they are changing seems monumental, at least not until the last act of the film. The numbness with which they depict these new versions of themselves seems to point toward a discussion of the relationship between mental health and medication, their portrayals barely scratching the surface of that conversation however.
What allows Little Joe to stand out in the art house film world is its use of color and sound. The plant in its strikingly bright red seems to engulf everything around it, emulating the feeling of it infecting everything that comes in contact with its scent. This red appears elsewhere in the film, predominantly on the walls of the therapist’s office Alice frequents, a warning of little Joe’s potency. The sound design by Erik Mischijew and Matz Müller creates the increasingly disquieting feeling of realization that Alice experiences upon learning of little Joe’s potential; it helps the audience sense the real danger that lurks ahead, waiting to bloom.