In lesser hands, “Little Joe” would be a very dangerous film. As it stands, the latest masterful psychodrama from Austrian powerhouse Jessica Hausner (“Lourdes,” “Amour Fou”) still has plenty of potential to offend. A horticultural riff on “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” that broadly likens the spread of antidepressants to a dehumanizing alien force, “Little Joe” can be seen as a direct attack on anyone who’s ever appreciated the benefits of a mood-enhancing pharmaceutical, either firsthand or otherwise; the movie isn’t the least bit subtle in its suggestion that people on Prozac are addicted to their own well-being, and that their dependency siphons away at the full spectrum of who they are.
At the same time, Hausner — whatever her personal feelings on the matter — is too cunning an artist to launch such an uncomplicated broadside against millions of human beings who are just trying their best to put one foot in front of the other. The rare filmmaker who’s willing to challenge her audience’s self-understanding rather than simply reinforce the things they wish to be true about themselves, Hausner digs at her antiseptic parable just enough to leave room for a tiny seed of doubt.
By the time “Little Joe” reaches its cat-that-ate-the-canary smirk of a conclusion, even viewers who receive it as a glib dismissal of their (very real) depression — even those who reject the notion that medication dilutes who they are, and balk at the unscientific idea that chemically induced emotions are somehow less genuine than the ones our brain alchemizes on its own — might also engage with the larger, more abstract suggestion that simmers under the surface. Even people like this critic, who reveres Hausner’s talent but left her new film on the defensive, might respond to the overarching argument that our society has grown so desperate to be happy that it will accept any reality that gives us that chance, no matter how dehumanizing it might be.
Hausner is one of the few contemporary filmmakers who deserves to be thought of as Kubrick’s heir, and her control over her compositions is as commanding as ever. It’s always on the move, drifting laterally or creeping forward in to reveal all of the quotidian menace that eludes the naked eye. “Little Joe” only needs a few minutes to make you terrified of a simple plant — this movie will do for greenhouses what “Psycho” did for showers. It begins looking down on the hothouse nurseries of England’s Planthouse Biotechnologies, where the friction between modern science and organic biology is immediately made palpable by Martin Gschlacht’s gliding camerawork and Katharina Wöppermann’s woodsy score (the music nods to everything from Japanese ghost stories to giallo freakouts and eventually uses strings in a way that sounds like dogs barking their heads off).
This is the domain of Alice Woodard. Played by “Daphne” star Emily Beecham, a major talent who manages to split the difference between Nicole Kidman and Amy Adams while remaining entirely her own person, Alice is a divorced expert plant breeder who can sometimes play a bit fast and loose with the regulations. Alice’s latest invention is a genetically engineered strain that she’s named after her tween-age son (Kit Connor). She calls the entire breed Little Joe, and — in stark contrast to solo parenting a pubescent boy — she relishes the control that she’s able to have over her smaller green child.
More than just a pretty flower with a cluster of closed red nettles at the tip of its neck, Little Joe has been developed for a very particular purpose: To make people happier. Its scent triggers the release of oxytocin, which in turn results in a general feeling of well-being. Hooray. But Alice has gotten a bit too handsy for her colleagues’ liking. For one thing, she’s violated protocol and taken one of the specimens home to her flat. For another, she’s made Little Joe sterile, and used an untested virus to limit its allergens. Alas, life finds a way…
More ominous than scary, “Little Joe” might be the kind of cerebral nerve-frayer that seldom flirts with outright horror, but its most frightening sequences suggest that Hausner could very well make her own version of “The Shining” one day. Perhaps the most frightening of them all comes early, when a breeder named Chris (Ben “Paddington” Whishaw, revisiting the eager flatness he brought to “The Lobster”) doubles back into the nursery to look for a missing dog. As he searches for the pooch, the Little Joes seem to grow more alarming in the background. Then Chris dips down to grab something from the floor, and when he stands up the plants are all standing at attention, their heads opened into a mace of angry red spikes. It’s the kind of sight gag that’s potent enough to keep you on edge for the rest of the movie, and maybe leave you suspicious of flowers for the rest of your life.
From there, “Little Joe” unfolds with a cheeky archness that always seems intent on disturbing your most literal interpretations. Most of the scenes at Planthouse Biotechnologies are shaded with a smirk, as Hausner’s spare and restrained script (co-written with Géraldine Bajard) gets some deadpan mileage out of the infection that’s spreading between Alice’s co-workers. The more dire things get, the more Hausner plays things for laughs — a single, well-timed zoom asks you to look at the story from a cock-eyed point of view.
The situation is a bit different back on the homefront, as Alice is starting to grow apart from her son. Maybe he’s just getting older, or maybe his brain has been irreparably tainted by a pollen that’s determined to turn the entire human species into zombies who would rather hurt the ones they love than let any harm come to the Little Joe plants. The truth is never especially unclear — even if Alice’s therapist (Lindsey Duncan) insists that “We only ever really find what we’re looking for” — but it’s fun to watch Alice be gaslit by a bunch of flowers (Beecham careens between fear and control with the best of them, shifting between the two modes with little more than a flex of her cheekbones).
The further the movie goes along, the louder its messaging becomes. Eventually, it’s impossible to deny how sinister it seems for all of Alice’s co-workers to be defending Little Joe no matter how irrational and violent that gets. The parallels to addicts are undeniable, especially insofar as they pretend to be normal in order to protect their addictions (such explicit coding is a problematic touch, given that antidepressants are generally not habit-forming). And, at a time when painkillers are one of the leading causes of death in large parts of the world, it’s a bit naïve to assume that people who are addicted to prescription medications don’t regularly question their dependency on (and allegiance to) the sources of their pharmaceuticals.
Even as Hausner filters this pointed allegory through one arresting frame after another, the director turning even a simple dinnertime meal between Alice and her son into a deep wellspring of parental guilt and uncertainty, there’s a sense that the walls are closing in. The more desperate Alice becomes to feel content and have everything under control, the more that “Little Joe” narrows its central metaphor; the climactic sequence is so antagonistic towards psychotropic substances that it might as well have been ghostwritten by L. Ron Hubbard (in the unlikely event that Hausner turns out to be a Scientologist, this review will have to be re-written as a scorched earth takedown).
Only in the final moments that follow does Hausner ease off the pedal and refocus on asking her characters questions instead of implicating her audience. It’s a shame that anyone needs antidepressants, but it’s dangerous to suggest — as “Little Joe” does for large swaths of its running time — that the “happiness” those drugs provoke is somehow less genuine than the desolation they’re meant to extinguish. But as Hausner tips into fantasy with a daring kicker, she dismantles the literalness she dares viewers to assume until that point.
Perhaps, in a broader context, there’s a very real cost to choosing artificial contentedness over confronting the messiness of the world in front of us. Perhaps that’s how we end up with a ruined planet of grinning populist dictators, and with millions of people who are willing to accept the alternate facts those monsters provide. Perhaps there’s a power in broaching that subject in an uncomfortable way that isn’t afraid to wrankle certain audiences in a way that art should, even if it doesn’t change their minds. Even so, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Hausner’s film could have been so much richer if it asked people take stock of their personal happiness without delegitimizing it at the same time.
“Little Joe” premiered in Competition at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.