“The ability to reproduce gives living beings meaning,” says one of the horticultural scientists at the center of Austrian filmmaker Jessica Hausner’s sixth feature film, “Little Joe.” They’re discussing a flower genetically engineered by Alice Woodard (Emily Beecham), a plant designed to make people happy when they smell it, the very first floral antidepressant. It seems to potentially be a breakthrough innovation, and for vaguely capitalistic reasons (intellectual property, corporate spying), Alice has engineered the plant, dubbed Little Joe, after her son Joe (Kit Connor), to be infertile. However, as another famous movie biologist once said, “Life finds a way.” And Little Joe does find a way, which makes for a delightfully oddball and dread-filled psycho-bio thriller.
Anchored by a tremendous lead performance by Meecham (who won best actress at Cannes for this role), “Little Joe” is a niftily designed and utterly original sci-fi-adjacent film that draws on existential anxieties both ancient and modern to produce its unsettling sense of terror. Alice occupies the role of both scientist and mother, and although she doesn’t seem to struggle to straddle the two identities, there’s no lack of pressure on her performance. One of her co-workers asks her which “child” she’ll choose, Joe or her strangely responsive flower, Little Joe.
Eventually, Alice becomes a lot like both Dr. Frankenstein and the young single mother of Otto Preminger’s London-set kidnap thriller “Bunny Lake Is Missing”: She’s created a monster and her son is missing, his personality mysteriously flat after inhaling a whiff of Little Joe’s pollen. Alice’s fear of her changing tween son is egged on by the bizarre behavior of her lab colleagues, who are racing to prepare for the big flower show. A theory arises that Little Joe, unable to reproduce on its own, needs an army of human followers to protect and propagate the plant.
Hausner’s film is mesmerizing and eerie, as she marries slow, hypnotic camera movement with impeccably designed and color-blocked production design and costumes (by Katharina Wöppermann and Tanja Hausner). The crimson blooms pop menacingly against mint-green lab coats; various hues of pink and her bright orange bowl cut set Alice apart in the frame. Hausner and cinematographer Martin Gschlacht use long, complex camera movements, lateral tracking shots revealing and concealing characters, dollying in for close-ups. Hausner employs a motif of slow zooms into middle space between two characters, the camera picking out nothing in particular but suggesting the presence of an invisible, otherworldly presence, an unseen guiding element.
Further adding to the disquieting atmosphere is a soundscape made up of minimalist pieces of flute and drums, written in the 1970s by Japanese composer Teiji Ito, layered sometimes with the sound of barking dogs. It all adds to the swirling sense of discomfort Alice grapples with, at first her resistance to and then belief in, this pollen-borne personality infection.
Although “Little Joe” forthrightly ponders a mother’s choice between her children and career, the film is more about modern alienation and the challenges that individuals have connecting with each other and a desire for happiness. “Who can measure genuine emotions anyway?” the scientists muse. Is true happiness feeling nothing at all? Hausner, and her co-writer and frequent collaborator Géraldine Bajard, boldly place this utterly elemental and human question in the very center of this curious botanical mystery.