'Little Joe' Review: A Disquieting And Precise Blend Of Sci-Fi, Horror, And Human Drama

Maybe it's the success of TV's Black Mirror, maybe it's just the general state of the world, but it feels a bit like we need our high-concept science fiction delivered to us in purely dystopian form. Technological advances are inherently suspicious, the conventional wisdom seems to suggest. Our humanity alone might not be enough to save us. It's oddly comforting, strange as it sounds, to come across a film like Jessica Hausner's Little Joe, which takes the form of an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style horror film but dares to suggest that perhaps the things we fear aren't quite as ominous as they appear.

That's not to say that Hausner somehow brushes off the threat of the titular genetically engineered flower, a little red-budded menace designed to emit the hormone associated with a mother loving her child – but may also be shifting the behaviors of those exposed to it in borderline imperceptible ways. It's nothing dramatic. People do not undergo some kind of dramatic physical transformation or act substantially different. There's just something ... off. The only people who can really notice the affectation are those closest to supposedly changed parties. (Added that adverb expressing doubt because Hausner never truly confirms that Little Joe does, in fact, do the things that the characters fear.)

Hausner's subtle paranoia and eerie precision allow Little Joe to strike that raw nerve of unease and dread like the best speculative fiction can. Would we even notice if the people we loved or saw frequently began to change at the behest of an inhuman influence? What if there is change we cannot undo with the sheer force of the human will? We feel it generally because the characters in the film, particularly Emily Beecham's protagonist Alice, feel this terror so acutely. As both a single mother and a scientist, Alice feels devoted to both her teenage son Joe (Kit Connor) and her lab work engineering the floral creation to bring artificial happiness. But when the plant begins its speculative reign of terror, she's forced to grapple with a terrifying reality. The two things she cultivates most carefully may be acting in ways that she can no longer control.

Though Alice might lose her grip on the world around her, Hausner remains steady in her guidance of the film. It's clear from the opening moments of Little Joe that we're in the hands of a master craftswoman, an aesthetic practitioner of exceptional rigor. Her house style featuring austere performance work and meticulous composition lends an unsettling aura to a story that so easily could play in an apocalyptic register. She threads the needle delicately between making her actors appear choreographed and not robotic, just as she builds a world that feels artificial without ever giving off a whiff of sterility.

Hausner's directorial hand is palpable in every frame of Little Joe, be it the screeching whistle noise emitted by the plants, the grace of her camera's slow pushes or the ironic awkwardness of her still shots. Yet for how apparent her constant decision-making is throughout the film, she leaves one big choice to the audience: what to make of it all. Unlike her construction of the work, Hausner leaves the film on a note of remarkable ambiguity (though certainly not ambivalence). She raises important questions about technology and science, parenting and selfhood, autonomy and control. Or happiness and business, as a song bellows over the ending credits makes viewers contemplate. She's not an entirely dispassionate observer and makes her feelings known where she cannot stay silent, particularly when it comes to the false choices that society forces working mothers to make.

But beyond that? The monster may not even be that monstrous. The hero might not be particularly heroic. There's no sermonizing in sight to set our moral guideposts, nor is their soapbox blustering to guide our feelings towards a villain. We're left with ourselves and our own feelings at the end of Little Joe, set adrift to ponder if we're really all that horrified by the human drama in a film that takes the form of a horror flick.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10