'Little Joe': Film Review | Cannes 2019

Cannes Film Festival
Rots on the vine.

Jessica Hausner's competition entry is about a plant grower who creates a flower that can make people happy.

A lifeless, tone-deaf variation on Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Little Joe rots on its own vine. Intended as some sort of cautionary tale about the risks of genetic engineering, Austrian director Jessica Hausner’s first English-language outing is loaded with dull expository dialogue, dozens of identical lateral tracking shots, unconvincing casting and even a convenient shrink character who serves only as a faucet for the lead character’s concerns. The utter lack of any suspense or excitement suggests a short commercial life span for this flavorless Euro pudding.

The initial sight of an immaculately cared for “mood-lifting happy plant” being grown under impeccable high-tech greenhouse conditions might seem beguiling to some, but to filmgoers of some experience it might merely suggest a better manicured but less fun reverse twist on The Little Shop of Horrors. Rushing to grow the bright red flowers in time for some horticulture fair, the handful of biologists/technicians imagine that they have a real game changer with this “plant that promotes happiness.”

Lead plant breeder Alice (Emily Beecham), whose hair is nearly as flaming red as the flower she’s helped develop, is so enthused with her innovative work that she breaks the rules and slips one plant home to show her teenage son Joe (Kit Connor); the weed is duly named Little Joe.

At the office, Alice is on the receiving end of clumsy romantic overtures from Chris (Ben Whishaw), while older worker Bella (Kerry Fox) reserves all her emotional attention for her dog, who’s always around the company’s sleek offices — until it’s not. A handful of other employees turn up as well, but it does seem like a small and not that scientific group to be working on such a potentially game-changing project.

The staff is fully aware that a strong whiff of the flower’s spores can change you and makes your cares disappear, so precautions are duly taken. But they’re not enough and, lo and behold, some of Alice’s colleagues, and then her son, become infected with the happiness pollen and turn into zombies — reasonable and pleasant versions of such as these things go, but zombies nonetheless.

We’re made aware of Alice’s reservations and fears due to her regular visits with her psychiatrist (Lindsay Duncan, sitting comfortably in her chair the whole time), the easiest dramatic crutch in the book for lazy screenwriters. The chickens come home to roost for Alice when young Joe turns up with a similarly pliable apparent girlfriend and announces he wants to move to the country to live with his dad.

The rest is wannabe thriller stuff with past-their-expiration-date plot triggers and a cool visual and cutting style that is antithetical to the manufacture of any suspense. This, combined with a cast that never convinces as brainy scientific types, renders the film null and void in the excitement department. There’s just nothing going on here with which to engage your interest, nor is there a single moment to even slightly increase the viewer’s pulse rate.

Through it all, Beecham does manage to retain her poise and dignity, even if her role lacks either depth or interesting edges. The further you go down through the cast, the less any of them convince as dedicated or smart scientists; they’re just actors who have put on robes.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)

Production: Coop99, The Bureau, Essential Films

Cast: Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox, Kit Connor, David Wilmot, Phenix Brossard, Sebastian Hulk, Lindsay Duncan

Director: Jessica Hausner

Screenwriters: Jessica Hausner, Geraldine Bajard

Producers: Bruno Wagner, Bertrand Faivre, Philippe Bober, Martin Gschlacht,

Jessica Hausner, Geraldine O’Flynn

Director of photography: Martin Geschlacht

Production designer: Katharina Woppermann

Costume designer: Tanja Hausner

Editor: Karina Ressler

Music: Teiji Ito, Markus Binder

105 minutes