There haven’t been many movies about the COVID-19 pandemic that have earned ecstatic praise from pro critics or general audiences (Host is maybe the one exception I can immediately recall). However, there have been plenty of movies praised for capturing the eerie, isolating mood of the past year despite being conceived & produced before lockdowns started in earnest. While people don’t seem to have much of an appetite for COVID-specific films while we’re still collectively suffering through this global crisis, there is a detectable interest in films like Palm Springs, She Dies Tomorrow, and Vivarium that stumbled into resonating with “these unprecedented times” entirely by happenstance. It’s possible, then, that the little-seen Cannes darling Little Joe would’ve generated a lot more discussion if it had arrived just a few months later than its streaming premiere date in December 2019. It’s a quiet little sci-fi chiller that never stood much of a chance of wowing general audiences, but its accidental parallels to the never-ending COVID pandemic might’ve been enough of a hook to at least lure more esoteric film nerds to the screen.
I want to call Little Joe a twee update to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but it’s much icier and more emotionally detached than that would imply. The gorgeously manicured costumes & sets echo a fussy dollhouse aesthetic that’s familiar to twee filmmaking. However, like the similarly confectionary Swallow, it’s too emotionally reserved to be pigeonholed as twee despite its prim, femme decor. In the film, a plant breeder at a high-security laboratory brings home a new developmental species to cheer up her lonely teenage son. The plant was scientifically engineered to make its owner happy through the release of “natural” toxins, like a pseudo-organic alternative to Prozac. Gradually, her son and her coworkers more directly exposed to the plant stop behaving like their authentic selves. They’re noticeably happier, but they’re also emotionally numb to anything that isn’t the care, protection, and reproduction of the experimental house plant. They’re obsessed with it. It’s a subtle Body Snatchers riff with no visual signifiers of traditional horror, only characters losing any edge or dynamism to their baseline personalities.
There are a few surface details to the film’s laboratory setting and health pandemic themes that can’t help but recall current cultural moods surrounding COVID: face masks, hand sanitizer stations, corporate indifference to working class vulnerability, etc. What really resonated with me, though, is Little Joe‘s parallels to our current house plant craze – the sudden boom of people filling their homes with living things to combat the emotional isolation of a year we’ve mostly spent apart. In Little Joe, that choice is presented as a metaphor for a failed work-homelife balance, wherein a work-obsessed mother completely ignores her lonely teenager son. She doesn’t initially notice that his personality has been zapped away by her house plant surrogate, because she’s too distracted with spending as much time in the lab as possible. I don’t believe the film is overtly moralizing about working mothers’ ignored domestic responsibilities, but rather exaggerating how hard it is to admit when you do care more about your own life and career than you do your child because others would wag a finger at you for it.
Little Joe does a great job of making its genetically engineered houseplants ~spooky~ in the subtle bug-skitter sounds of them unfurling in slow-motion puppetry. It’s also frustratingly inert, though, seemingly on purpose. The camera moves in slow, clinical pans and zooms that de-emphasize the importance of the characters talking in-frame, as if it’s as disinterested in them as they are to anything that’s not the plant. Meanwhile, the big deadline that’s driving the tension and escalation of the plant’s production is referred to only as the upcoming Flower Fair, which is a pretty hilarious conflict for what’s ostensibly a horror film. Little Joe is quietly funny, stubbornly anti-action, and just eerie enough to string you along if you’re not expecting anything especially flashy out of it. It jerks the audience around on a leash as it strolls to the inevitable conclusions of its Body Snatchers plotting, but it does so gently, as if it doesn’t really care if you follow along. I’d recommend it most to people who’ve been spending way more emotionally charged alone time with their house plants than they have with friends or family in the past year, which should cover just about everyone.