Jessica Hausner’s ‘Little Joe’: A Chilling Take On Happiness In The Bioengineering Age [Cannes Review]

The Playlist | 5/21/2019 | Caroline Tsai
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A strange pinkish glow emanates from the greenhouse of Planthouse Biotechnologies, the laboratory where Alice Woodward (Emily Beecham), a dedicated geneticist, works. With the help of her partner Chris (Ben Whishaw), Alice cultivates a unique plant that allows its carer — so long as they water it regularly, keep it out of the cold, touch, and talk to it — to feel happy. But when Alice brings the plant home to show her son Joe (Kit Connor), for whom the plant is named, she begins to observe strange behavior from everyone who comes into contact with the plant, which seems to infect those in proximity by releasing an inhalable, dusty cloud of pollen with neurological consequences.

As more and more people in her circles become infected, the underlying cause steadily erodes Alice’s grip on reality. Is her zany coworker with a history of mental illness Bella deluded, or perhaps onto something? And is Joe actually brainwashed by pollen, or merely encountering the stage of adolescence that distances children from their mothers, as Alice’s therapist (Lindsey Duncan) seems to think?

Jessica - Hausner - Joe - Competition - Cannes

Directed by Jessica Hausner, “Little Joe,” which premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, locates itself at the intersection of “Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “Black Mirror.” Like all the best sci-fi, Hausner’s film diagnoses a societal anxiety, this time biological engineering with unintended consequences. It’s the “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” for the gene-obsessed generation, about whether happiness can be engineered, and about how the ones we think we know best can harbor their own unreachable private lives.

Hausner sets a beautifully, selectively saturated scene, opting for bright sterility in the lab, with its artificial glow. The flowers themselves are unnaturally rendered in unsettling vermillion, fittingly in the type of Pantone shade that poisonous animals evolve to warn their predators of toxins....
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