For seven months, we have been living in a state of uncertainty. We wake up each day not knowing what’s in store for us. Living in a world that is in the midst of a pandemic is overwhelming, and some days the world feels like it’s on fire. While this is our reality, it is also the premise of Little Fish, Chad Hartigan’s timely pandemic romance based on a short story by Aja Gabel.
Set a few years into the future, Little Fish follows Emma (Olivia Cooke) and Jude (Jack O’Connell), a young couple trying to navigate their way through the turmoils of a pandemic resulting from NIA, or “neuroinflammatory affliction,” an disease akin to Alzheimers that causes people to lose their memories. As they fight to cling to the memories of their love, the couple must watch everyone, including themselves, succumb to the disease.
For some people, NIA hits them suddenly, but for others, it may take its time, slowly eating away at their memories until there’s nothing left. We watch the different effects it has on people, like a bus driver who forgets why he’s driving, so he gets off and walks right into the middle of the road; or a woman running a marathon but continues running long after the marathon is over. In the lead couple’s friend group, Ben (Raúl Castillo) is the first to be affected by NIA, gradually losing parts of himself until he reaches the point where he can’t remember who his girlfriend Samantha (Soko) is, going so far as to pull a knife on her and behave hysterically because he believes she’s an intruder in his home. His experience shows that NIA is something that infects every part of a person, causing them to lose everything in the process.
Cooke is amazing as Emma, an anxious woman who has so far been left unscathed by the disease and therefore must watch her husband, friends, and mother — who she learns has NIA over the phone — slowly disappear right before her eyes. O’Connell’s Jude is Emma’s oblivious counterpart, who barely remembers something he did a few hours before until he is reminded about it. Shortly after marrying Emma, he begins to forget little details, like where he put his keys, arguments he had with Emma over taking in a rescue dog, and eventually, details of their wedding day.
Mattson Tomlin’s screenplay has some not-so subtle metaphors, but they work. For instance, Emma is an aspiring writer and Jude is a photographer, which are both acts of documenting their lives before their memories eventually fade away. For Ben, preserving his life takes the form of recording every song he’s ever written. When he starts to forget which guitar notes to play, he gets them tattooed on his arm, serving as a permanent reminder of the past he will soon forget.
After news of a potential cure having “overwhelmingly positive results,” chaos ensues, infusing the film with dystopian tones. Due to hospitals turning people away, people decide to take matters into their own hands, using guided videos to perform the procedure, which apparently suppresses NIA, on themselves, like Jude, who has Emma perform the operation on him after he gets rejected from being a participant in a clinical trial. The operation fails, and the couple must come to terms with their doomed relationship.
With a weaving timeline, the film floats between the past and present, but it flows well enough that it never leaves us confused. Flashbacks are used to depict the love that Jude and Emma are trying desperately to hold on to, with a haunting voiceover from Emma that narrates the film from start to finish. Despite being set during a period of darkness and difficulties, Hartigan creates a dreamlike atmosphere through swoony and vibrant cinematography from Sean McElwee and Keegan DeWitt’s mesmerising score.
With hints of Drake Doremus and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind echo throughout the film, Little Fish chooses to examine the couple’s disintegration, using science as a backdrop rather than getting into the origins of NIA. We’re left wanting to know more, but there’s something beautiful about the focus on the romance that makes up for the shaky science.
Hartigan succeeds at crafting a poignant tale elevated by the electrifying chemistry between Cooke and O’Connell, who continuously prove that they are two of the most criminally underrated working actors today. Little Fish is a beautiful, tear-jerking love story that resonates with our time.
Little Fish screened as part of the virtual edition of Newport Beach Film Festival on October 1st, it has an official release date set for February 5th, 2021.
by Jihane Bousfiha