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A sad, gorgeous film about love amid a pandemic, Chad Hartigan’s Little Fish features not our real disease (it was in the can before COVID-19) but an invented one in which healthy people lose chunks of their identities — bit by bit or all at once. Think Alzheimer’s, but a more aggressive and unpredictable affliction, and one that hits a shocking percentage of the world’s population. Crucially for this story, it strikes the young as well as the old, so a couple who are barely past their wedding day (Olivia Cooke and Jack O’Connell) can have their beautiful lives torn apart by it in slow motion. Based on a short story by Aja Gabel, it makes a global crisis intensely personal, even romantic.
Cooke narrates the film as Emma, reading from a notebook in which she’s preserving the story of her relationship with O’Connell’s Jude. “I was so sad the day I met you,” it begins, watching in flashback as a dog brings them together on a stretch of rocky beach. (Throughout, Hartigan and DP Sean McElwee use Pacific Northwest landscape and atmosphere to excellent effect.) As it moves forward with its illness tale, the film will luxuriate in scenes of their first weeks together, as Jude’s rough magnetism lures Emma away from a man she doesn’t love. His friends become her family — a cozy, artsy circle for the veterinarian whose days, as the crisis develops, will largely be spent euthanizing pets whose owners can no longer remember them.
RELEASE DATE Feb 05, 2021
Raul Castillo is heartbreaking as Ben, the songwriter who is the first of the group to catch NIA (neuro-inflammatory affliction). He struggles with Jude to record all the songs he’s written before he forgets how to play them; then, frighteningly, he stops recognizing his wife Samantha (the French musician Soko). When Jude begins to forget little things months later, the couple know first-hand what they’re in for.
The script’s intimate perspective doesn’t completely ignore the outside world. We get hints of how NIA has changed things, most vividly in scenes of tense crowds outside the building where trials for a possible cure are being run. But for every note of apocalyptic cinema here (like the helicopters always overhead, looking for missing persons) there’s a reminder that life is mostly unchanged for some people. Unlike our own pandemic, though, socioeconomic status has nothing to do with how hard NIA hits you.
Emma gets Jude into the lottery to enter a clinical trial. But the procedure being tested is much scarier than a vaccine, and at any rate it’s far from certain he can participate. So the two cling to their life together, each stage in Jude’s deterioration prompting Emma to wonder, “Do I know you better than you know yourself?”
We’ve seen this story before, of course, in the wrenching dementia dramas that let elderly actors remind us of their greatness. But without their nostalgic component and opportunity to examine regret, Fish feels little like one of those. It’s also little like the sometimes treacly, sometimes tasteful illness romances often aimed at YA audiences. It’s more philosophical, more specific and more sensitively made. Cooke, no stranger to illness drama (last year’s Sound of Metal was another that rose far above its genre), gives an especially strong performance in a role that isn’t designed to exploit our sympathies. Even when it’s forcing her to kill handsome old dogs, Little Fish can pay intense attention to sadness without trying to manipulate us into tears.
Production companies: Automatik, Oddfellows
Distributor: IFC Films (Available Friday, February 5 in select theaters, on digital and VOD)
Cast: Olivia Cooke, Jack O’Connell, Soko, Raul Castillo
Director: Chad Hartigan
Screenwriter: Mattson Tomlin
Producers: Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Rian Cahill, Tim Headington, Lia Buman, Chris Ferguson
Director of photography: Sean McElwee
Production designer: Caitlin Byrnes
Costume designer: Mila Franovic
Editor: Josh Crockett
Composer: Keegan DeWitt
Casting directors: Chelsea Ellis Bloch, Marisol Roncali
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