At the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, you can now listen to plants. At first, the image of Little Shop of Horrors comes to mind; are the plants trying to tell us something? They aren’t — the recorded noises are amplified versions of sonic waves created by their growth in the soil. Similar to our feet touching the ground or our hands tapping a surface, the noise has no meaning. Or does it? By giving plants a new sense of individuality, perhaps we can learn to understand them, and even communicate. The sounds are shrills, taps, nothing really new or groundbreaking — a deflated crop of ideas similar to Jessica Hausner’s latest Cannes premiere.
Hausner’s Little Joe elevates communicable plants by giving them the opportunity to control human emotions. At the head of this discovery is a suspicious Alice (Emily Beecham), followed by her overly-inquisitive son Joe (Kit Connor). Alice gifts Joe with one of the manipulating plants as a way to console his tiresome adolescence — Joe lives in separate homes and has a strained relationship with his father. Worried about his emotional state, she reckons “Little Joe” will uplift him. As the world grows more and more pessimistic about environmental concerns, one could perceive the film as a quasi-Black Mirror episode commenting on our relationship with flora. Perhaps the world would be better off with plants controlling human psyches, and thus, the environment around us.
The one ability unique to humans, though, is empathy. As the plot of Little Joe unfolds, it drives this idea hard into Alice, who soon becomes the sole empathetic character of the story. She sympathises with an awkward, deranged coworker who has been critically affected by the plant. Emily Beecham’s performance, taking home the Cannes Best Actress award, is uncanny and bizarre. Her conversations with every player are awkward and unsettling, especially those with predatory coworker Chris (Ben Whishaw). Alice attempts to flesh out the negative effects of the plant, but is met with adversity from the office — the film delivers a heavy-handed criticism of group-think.
Little Joe is not unlike Little Shop’s form in giving the plant kingdom realm over humans; however, it is an entirely new take on the style. The futuristic set design is pristine and fun at first, but quickly grows old and IKEA-ish; it’s the future, but it’s such a dated perspective that it’s boring. With ample opportunity to give life to a plant that is so intriguing, the film decides to throw more into awkward silences and random shots of walls. Little Joe is never satisfying as a science fiction piece; there is no feeling of utopia, nor any of dystopia.
The awkward performances are incongruous to the high-concept set design and mysterious plot. Alice’s spiral into delirium is confusing — it surely isn’t serious, but it also isn’t all that funny. Joe develops alongside Little Joe just as Alice’s coworkers grow more and more attached to the batch of plants, which makes the fantasy side of the film incredibly predictable. Little Joe never delivers an ultimatum for the stress-relieving plant — while the result of robotic happiness is odd, it is never extreme nor subtle enough to relay any sort of message. And even the message itself is shaky. In part, it works against mob mentality under a supreme, all-knowing leader. The other half seems to be a call to action against antidepressants. The premise and stills seem inviting, but they portray a Black Mirror dystopia the film never manages to conjure.
by Fletcher Peters
Originally from the suburbs of Chicago, Fletcher is now living in New York studying towards a BA in Cinema Studies. She loves crossword puzzles, low-budget off-off Broadway shows, and when she’s at home, annoying her cats. Her favorite films include Rear Window, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. She’s also a fan of everything Star Wars related. You can find her on Twitter, Letterboxd, and Instagram.