Imagine Invasion of the Body Snatchers for the age of antidepressants — that’s Little Joe, the seventh feature (and first in English) from Austrian provocateur Jessica Hausner (Lourdes, Amour Fou). Hausner doesn’t so much do another Body Snatchers remake (there’s already been three) as spin its thesis for her own cerebral twists. Borrowed inspiration? Maybe. Too deliberately paced? For sure. But watch out for Hausner. She’s a cinematic hypnotist of a high order.
A coolly magnetic Emily Beecham — she won the Best Actress prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival — as Alice Woodard, a senior plant breeder at Planthouse Biotechnologies in England. The corporate lab has given Alice her own wonderland; for her, it’s a place to experiment with and care for her own breed of flower whose pollen, once inhaled, has the power to induce a feeling of supreme contentment. Naturally, the company’s suits, including the skeptical administrator Karl (David Wilmot), see the commercial potential in this “happy” pill. Her assistant Chris (a fine-tuned and fascinating Ben Whishaw), who harbors a shy crush on Alice, offers worshipful support.
Still, there’s something unnerving about that plant as cinematographer Martin Gschlacht’s camera sweeps across rows and rows of those seemingly benign flowers, their red tendrils appearing ready to choke off all opposition. Suddenly we’re in shivery territory that suggests the films of David Cronenberg. The electronic drip of the score by Teiji Ito and Markus Binder adds to the unease, as does Bella (Kerry Fox), an older co-worker whose dog just isn’t the same after he spends a night in the lab.
The pollen really hits the fan when Alice, a divorced mother, breaks the rules by bringing a single plant home to show to her adoring teen son, Joe (Kit Connor), who becomes defiant and less adoring the closer he gets to the flower. Though Alice has named the plant and the breed “Little Joe” after her son, she soon begins to see that she might have unleashed a monster. Beecham is spectacularly good at showing how this growing realization affects Alice. While she keeps her distance from the plant, everyone else shows serious behavior modifications. Outwardly calm and “happy” on the surface, these smiling zombies become increasingly protective of the plant and eager to persuade others to take a hit off Little Joe.
There are several ways to interpret what’s going on. Does Alice’s horror at her own creation suggest the decidedly mixed feelings about motherhood she shares with her therapist (Lindsay Duncan)? Is this army of plants a metaphor for Alice’s emotional alienation from the world as a whole? Everything feeds into the notion that these plants represent the proliferation of antidepressants among a new social order that would prefer to numb itself to feeling in the name of the alleged comfort that comes with conformist passivity. Think about how that idea plays into what’s happening in the world right now — and suddenly, Little Joe feels like it’s a movie made for these times.