Ominous plant Little Joe takes Audrey Two’s place in what at first appears to be an art house version of ‘Little Shop Of Horrors’ – yet though the plants have the same goal, Little Joe’s way of manifesting itself is far more disturbing than the man-eating yet comical, blood-thirsty yet musical, CGI seedling Rick Moranis unfortunately takes home with him. In Jessica Hausner’s version of flora gone wild, Emily Beecham plays Alice Woodard, top senior plant breeder in the midst of a new species, a ‘happy’ plant to make the world less depressed. A single mother, she juggles the responsibility of the population’s mental health with caring for her teenage son, Joe (Kit Connor). Against company policy, Alice decides to take a plant home and name it after him. But the warning of co-worker Bella (Kerry Fox) and the gradual alteration of the people around her sees Alice question her new creation, and the entirety of her way of living.
Although the concept is interesting, the film falls flat in terms of structure: once Chris (Ben Whishaw), Alice’s co-worker who has a crush on her, – and who fails to understand the meaning of ‘no’ during an uncomfortable pub date – accidentally inhales Little Joe’s pollen, the plot becomes a succession of the same issue disguised as a different one. Bella laments when her dog goes missing and comes back ‘changed’; Alice’s son succumbs to the same fate as Chris; the other plant breeders on the team in charge of Little Joe are picked off one by one and morphed into a pair of vacant eyes and robotic movements. There is no turning point, and Alice’s annoyingly repetitive denial of Little Joe’s effect on her entourage do nothing to provide the film with an interesting bump along a plateau of familiarity, only at times interrupted by Alice’s visits to her soft-voiced therapist (Lindsay Duncan), whose presence is almost a pretext for explaining anything the viewer hasn’t been able to deduce. Some of the acting also takes on the same form: where many of the characters are supposed to engage in monotonous, generic dialect, it is easily interpretable as a sometimes shaky script. Beecham nonetheless shines through, her bob of red hair eerily reminiscent of the terror she has created. In this sense, Hausner’s attention to colour is exceptional, be it Alice’s overly ironed shirts which always separate her from her mechanical colleagues or the purple neon lights that ooze over the hundreds of little red domes the plant breeders nurture like new-borns. Hausner’s cinematography also creates an asymmetry, as the camera slowly zooms into the space between two characters and excludes them from the frame, both of their profiles disappearing at the same time and leaving us most often with just a door or window to contemplate. Accompanying her camerawork and intense palette is Teiji Ito’s skilful soundtrack, a mix of drums and sudden bursts of dog barks, a discordance of panic and discomfort. Yet interestingly, everything in the laboratory and in Alice’s home is always clinically clean and orderly: even before Joe is infected, she and Joe crack open their takeaway sushi boxes and their movements robotically mirror each other in their obsessively tidy kitchen. It is only Joe bringing home a fish from a weekend with his father that creates a dissonance, as Alice messily attempts to cram it into her mouth.
Fundamentally however, 'Little Joe' is about the dependency developed by antidepressants and the detachment from reality that ensues. When Joe and his girlfriend – who have both inhaled Little Joe’s pollen – gently mock Alice by pretending to be even more abnormal than they are, fulfilling her worst nightmare, they compare it to being dead. But of course, although they are joking, this association does not seem to be too far off. Alice’s surroundings navigate the world without seeming to notice, devout to this small plant that has made them ‘happy’. Yet, what seems odd is that Alice doesn’t seem entirely out of place despite not having inhaled the pollen. A quick glance of surprise or confusion crosses her face every once in a while, but she is able still to keep calm and continue her work. The only person who truly seems to affect her usual stagnant mind-set is her son, which highlights the true theme at the heart of ‘Little Joe’: motherhood. Alice’s preoccupations lie not only in the well-being of the plant she has bred, but in her seeming inability to juggle work and her son. Yet where she feels the strongest sense of responsibility is not at home, but in the laboratory where, as she says to Chris, “if I’ve made a mistake, then it’s my fault”. Just as a mother might feel raising her child, Alice is overwhelmed by the necessity of constantly being attentive to Little Joe’s growth and effect on others. She has found a child in this plant, one that symbolises work and opposes the little Joe waiting for her at home. Mirroring this in one of the film’s most unsettling scenes, Bella finds herself locked in the laboratory one night: her panic when she turns around and sees a room full of plants – which to any person unaware of the situation would seem harmless – is not unlike an anxious relative being left alone with the baby for a short while. ‘Little Joe’ oozes fear of responsibility, maternal angst and guilt at wanting to separate one’s self from one’s creation. “You’re a good mother, but which of your children will you choose?”, Bella asks Alice. Whatever the answer, Alice remains undecipherable: like the plants she breeds, her hair glows beautifully. But also just like the little Joes fester at the root, so does she.