Recently playing at Austin’s Fantastic Fest after competing for the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival (and winning Emily Beecham Best Actress award), Jessica Hausner’s English-language debut feature Little Joe in many was recalls her 2004 feature Hotel with its particular utilization of genre as a way to explore the relationship between women, identity and labor.
While this earlier film focused on a young woman struggling on the lower rungs of the hospitality industry, drilling down into how both that and a curious missing person case and a mysterious nearby cave impact the identity of Hotel’s woman protagonist, Little Joe reveals an even more confident filmmaker far less genre shy.
Beecham plays Alice, a successful, capable and highly ambitious plant breeder whose promise at the elite private research company where she works rests largely on her latest creation, a genetically engineered, mood-enhancing antidepressant flower she calls Little Joe. A single mother, she has named the plant after her son Joe (Kit Conner), whom she loves dearly. Yet Alice struggles to maintain a functional work/life balance, apologetically arriving home late with a seemingly endless parade of high-end, gourmet takeout meals.
With the support of her deeply infatuated colleague Chris (Ben Wishaw), Little Joe appears to be a rousing success, guaranteeing not just Alice’s excellent future career prospects, but financial success and industry accolades for her employer and – most idealistically – a happier world for those who bring a Little Joe into their home. But as warned by her increasingly concerned colleague Bella (Kerry Fox) who has just returned to work after a lengthy absence after a severe mental health crisis, what Little Joe offers isn’t happiness as such, but something quite different – and much more disturbing.
Wearing its love for the Invasion of the Body Snatchers legacy proudly on its sleeve, with Little Joe Hausner updates the “pod people” motif to explicitly incorporate two highly contemporary thematic threads; the ubiquity of antidepressants and the implied ideal of permanent happiness as a standardized emotional norm to aspire to, and the role of the mother to be the primary source of happiness (or, in contrast, unhappiness). Hausner makes this quite literal: Little Joe is not an easy plant to look after, but by talking to it and caring for it – mothering it – it releases oxytocin, a key peptide hormone which plays an integral role in (amongst other things) the bonding between a mother and child on a biochemical level.
A stunning achievement on a stylistic level alone, Little Joe is marked by two competing color palettes, one of stark, bold primary colors, the other of muted pastels of largely baby pink and mint green. Yet just like the environment in which both Alice and Little Joe thrive – the laboratory – there is something deliberately clinical about the film, and Hausner seems to insist we engage with her characters at an objective, almost scientific distance. It’s a fascinating approach; in another film what might be a flaw here meshes perfectly with Alice’s own inability to live up to the expectations both she and others place on her as a mother, simply because she refuses to surrender her professional ambitions. As so many women can no doubt identify with, it’s a no-win scenario; you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. It’s family or career, but rarely both.
Thus the happiness Little Joe offers is framed within the film as a kind of conceptual Pandora’s Box. Yes, the plant produces the chemical gift of a permanent feeling of happiness and connectedness, feelings inked explicitly in the movie to the same kind of connections we might feel on a purely biological level as mothers. But the ‘horror’ of the film is that this might not be the right kind of happiness; that, ultimately, the stereotype of an unwavering sense of permanent joy and well-being is not just unattainable, but unnatural. A deliberately clinical, even cold film about the horror of synthetic happiness, Little Joe is an impressively stylish film that puts the demands of idealized happiness under the microscope in uncomfortable, disturbing ways.