Little Joe. M, 105 minutes. Three stars
Jessica Hausner's weird little psychological sci-fi horror film Little Joe comes along to theatres this week - for what's left of the viewing audience in another Covid lockdown - to re-establish the plant among the pecking order of horror film villains.
While they might not be knocking Jason Voorhees or Freddy Krueger or Leatherface off their podiums any time soon, vegetation has played the bad guy in plenty of memorable films. My favourite film flora would have to be the Audrey II from The Little Shop of Horrors, both 1960 and 1986 versions: a mean green killer from outer space who feasted on human blood.
In the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the local townspeople are replaced by emotionless clone versions of themselves grown in oversized bean pods, while in the 1963 thriller The Day of the Triffids a meteor shower brings with it a jungle of aggressive plants that spit poison.
These are of course just the sentient killer plants. I also enjoyed the role the quiet little oleander tree played in White Oleander.
The malevolent red and yellow herbage in Little Joe takes a little from column A, a little from column B, both passive and invasive.
In a lab genetically engineering commercial plants, scientist Alice (Emily Beecham) has been working on a flower specifically designed to make its owner happy. She names the new species Little Joe after her son (Kit Connor), a pre-teen with whom she has an increasing communication breakdown.
Her number one supporter in the lab is her friend and colleague Chris (Ben Whishaw) who also yearns for a relationship with Emily.
The interpersonal relationships in Emily's life are both confused and eased by the sense of calm and internal emptiness the Little Joes give off. Slowly though, Emily comes to realise the plants are leaving those who interact with them a hollow and uncaring Stepford-like populace.
This is a slow film. Austrian director Jessica Hausner, working in the English language for the first time, does love to take her time, but this is watching-plants-grow slow. Every line of dialogue is considered and eked out in fine measure. It's kind of like the whole film is on Prozac ... oh, I see what she did there.
Yep, it's all a giant metaphor for our pill-guzzling contemporary state of being.
Hausner's previous films have all been smashing - Lourdes, Lovely Rita - but Little Joe does suffer a bit from film festival syndrome, which is a term I just made up for those quirky independent films that play exceptionally well in a packed cinema in Telluride or on the Croisette where the audience enjoy the mood of the full house as much as the production itself.
Alone in a cinema in a mask-mandated Covid partial lockdown, it's a struggle to not find it just a tad indulgent.
It is, however, a brilliant work of production design, with shots of composition and symmetry to make Wes Anderson salivate and a palette that says "atomic ice cream" and "80s Miami Beach".
Performances are strong, particularly the always watchable Whishaw, and Connor gives a fun turn as the boy who lends his name to the plants.
There is a brilliant exchange between human Joe and his scientist mother where he and a school friend who have been infected with the Little Joe empty pleasantness explain to Emily how they feel about her and life in general. It's the kind of candidly brutal exchange your teenager has with you on any given day at the kitchen table but it feels gutting and observational in this removed science fiction setting.