Arts movie review

‘Little Joe’ incites little horror

Even Emily Beecham can’t save ‘Little Joe’ from boredom (or the world from Little Joe)

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Emily Beecham delivers a stunning performance in 'Little Joe,' but it's not enough to keep the movie on track.
Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Little Joe
Directed by Jessica Hausner
Screenplay by Jessica Hausner and Géraldine Bajard
Starring Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox, Kit Connor
Not Rated, Playing Dec. 6

When I finished Little Joe, I thought about all that the film could have been. Its premise embodies a kind of originality that is rare in Hollywood these days. Emily Beecham delivers a spectacular performance, her subtle facial expressions vividly illustrating her character’s inner thoughts. What a shame that the movie as a whole could not achieve that same level of subtlety.

In Little Joe, Alice (Beecham) and her co-worker Chris (Ben Whishaw) create a genetically modified flower called Little Joe. When a person inhales Little Joe’s pollen, they are supposed to become happier. Breaking regulations, Alice gifts a Little Joe to her son, Joe (Kit Connor). However, there is a devastating but almost invisible side effect. Bella (Kerry Fox) desperately tries to warn Alice, who is convinced that her plant is safe. Nonetheless, as more evidence piles up, Alice slowly realizes that Bella may be right and tries to kill all the Little Joes — but the damage has already been done.

The film starts off strong. The first half hour is full of interesting developments, and the use of neon red lighting and haunting sound effects perfectly captures the mood. Then begins Alice’s slow — frustratingly slow — realization that her Little Joe is not harmless. This is where Beecham truly shines. She masterfully displays Alice’s inner turmoil through her glancing eyes and increased hesitancy when answering questions.

Apart from Beecham’s acting, though, there are few redeeming qualities in the second half of the movie. The lighting and sound effects that are effective in the beginning of the film are reused until they feel excessive and downright ridiculous. (Economists call this the “law of diminishing returns.”) Whishaw, fresh off an Emmy win for A Very English Scandal, is straitjacketed by his one-sided, flat character. Almost every plot development feels predictable. The action from the beginning devolves into an hour of Alice finding evidence that Little Joe is harmful and becoming increasingly worried, over and over again.

Ultimately, Little Joe prevails. Plans are made for its widespread use. The dramatic turn of events in the end could have incited a unique type of horror in viewers. Instead, it felt like a cop-out. Maybe it was for the best: we don’t need more people who are scared of GMOs.