Jessica Hausner (Lourdes, Amour Fou) delivers a high-concept sci-fi horror that could have been a decent prequel/spin-off of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening. With premise that sounds closely grounded to the reality—about commodification of plants to produce new breeds that defy the ordinary, Little Joe offers a grounded approach to the storytelling as well. There’s no spectacle nor explicit horror on the go, but the tension is real, built only by raising suspicions.
Alice (brilliantly portrayed with placidity by Emily Beecham) is the one who successfully breed a new species of plant she names after her son (Kit Connor), Little Joe. As a single mother, she believes that people should love plants like their own child, hence the name. With help from her colleague-cum-admirer, Chris (Ben Whishaw), she manages to make the titular plant an antidepressant type able to make its owner happier. The only drawback is, aside from its happiness-inducing nature, the plant is unable to reproduce sexually. At first, her revolutionary invention takes everyone by storm; but, problem arises when people start experiencing weird effect after inhaling Joe’s pollen. A once hailed source of happiness, Little Joe, falls under suspicions as mind-controlling plant. Yet, really, there’s nothing scarier than plants that trick you to be or, at least, feel happy in order to control you into doing what it needs for survival.
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Little Joe’s parasitic, mind-controlling nature, however, is never explicitly proven in the movie. Hausner’s story, which she co-writes with frequent collaborator, Geraldine Bajard, plays out with suspicious hypotheses that, often, never materialize. There’s no Happening kind of freakshow or apocalyptical endgame orchestrated by seemingly harmless creatures as in The Last of Us. The movie even negates the premise at certain moments with unreliable objections. Hausner’s aim for precision in directing is paved with questions that probe another question that only get complicated with the duration. While that doesn’t fade away the sense of dread, this approach potentially dries out audiences’ patience thinking that the movie’s ultimate goal is to trick them into believing, just like what the titular species is accused for.
While the deception never happens, the ambiguity prevails in providing source of frustrations for audiences over its deviating direction from the premise. The only thing that keeps the horror on is the sheer possibility of such an event to happen anytime soon. Aside from that, only Beecham’s consistently refined performance as a mother with obsession for total caring and the finest treatment for her both children—the actual and the floral one—saves Little Joe from faltering further into the realm of frustration.