As if it’s not already embarrassing enough that I’m a fully grown adult who treats every episode of the teens-in-peril melodrama Euphoria as appointment television, I have also spent a lot of my pandemic downtime watching its aughts-era prototype Skins for the first time. Skins was an even more chaotic show than Euphoria in both its drama and its artistic quality, but I very much enjoyed catching up with its ludicrous teen-hedonist fantasies in recent months. Maybe the most surprising thing about Skins is that—despite being a lasting cult favorite for horned-up, pilled-out Millennials—it didn’t launch many superstar careers for its revolving cast of troubled, adorable teens. Dev Patel, Daniel Kaluuya, and Nicolas Hoult are obvious major exceptions, but for the most part the Skins cast have grown up to be anonymous character actors on cable television (or, worse yet, in years-delayed fantasy movies about lovelorn mermaids). The one omission from that list that baffles me most is Jack O’Connell, who played James Cook on the show’s second “cycle.” Cook just felt like a star, even more so than the three lucky kids who became one (judging by their work as scrawny youths, not talented adults).
My favorite episode of Skins involves Cook winning a Class President election on a platform of pure anarchy, essentially tearing the school down in raucous celebration. Jack O’Connell was such an infectiously chaotic screen presence on the show that it was inevitable Cook would drive the student body into a collective, decadent frenzy – a perfect tonal counterpoint to that episode’s melodrama romance A-plot. Apparently nihilistic chaos was his default mode off-screen at the time as well, as his rampant substance abuse & party-hard lifestyle kept O’Connell in British tabloids for pretty much the entire time he was filming Skins in Bristol. I didn’t know anything about his personal life while watching the show, but a lot of what makes Cook such a compelling character is the authenticity of his chaotic presence, so that off-screen bad boy reputation makes total sense. That’s why it was such a relief to see O’Connell pop up in the much calmer, more cerebral sci-fi romance Little Fish from last year. I was honestly a little worried about his long-term health after seeing him play Cook, so it was just great to see him out there doing well, getting work, looking sharp.
Little Fish is one of those eerily pandemic-appropriate movies that happened to come out at the “right” time despite filming pre-COVID – joining the likes of Spontaneous, The Pink Cloud, Vivarium, and She Dies Tomorrow. Olivia Cooke narrates as the heartbroken lead: a young vet with an art photographer husband (O’Connell), both of whom are living through a near-future global health pandemic that causes the infected to lose their memory en masse. It’s like a viral, involuntary version of the Eternal Sunshine procedure, where two people who are very much in love are horrified by the idea that they will soon forget each other; then we gradually watch it happen. Little Fish is almost too grim to enjoy while a real-life global health pandemic lingers outside, since it’s the kind of sci-fi heartbreaker that asks questions like “When your disaster is everyone’s disaster, how do you grieve?” Since it was adapted from a 2011 short story and wrapped production in 2019, you can’t fault the film too much for how bleakly it recalls life & love during the COVID-19 pandemic (although there is a morbid humor to COVID preventing its planned premiere at Tribeca in 2020). Considered on its own terms outside that unforeseeable context, it’s a great little doomed romance with a mild sci-fi bent.
There’s a lot to admire about director Chad “Morris from America” Hartigan’s visual playfulness here. He tells the story through a fractured, remixed timeline that evokes the slipperiness of even a healthy memory; and he subtly erases or mutates the details of replayed scenes to illustrate those memories fading forever. He also finds ways to visually amplify the story’s romance (most notably in an intimate sex scene illustrated in De Palma split screens) and global-scale panic (most notably in the ominous military presence that rumbles outside) without drawing too much attention away from the core dramatic chemistry between Cooke & O’Connell. For me, it’s O’Connell who’s the real draw here, but only because I was so recently fascinated with his performance as James Cook. Like with Cook’s authentic onscreen chaos, his performance as the memory-drained husband reads as an authentic portrayal of a former addict who’s gracefully gotten his shit together, only to lose all that personal progress to a pandemic that’s out of his control. O’Connell’s wonderfully effective in the role, so much so that I’m willing to forgive his flat approximation of an American accent.
I’ll spare everyone the embarrassment of trying to guess what future stars are currently brewing on the Euphoria cast, since I’ve already been extremely unfair in preemptively declaring the vast majority of the Skins kids culturally irrelevant. They’re all still young; there’s plenty of time, as long as they take better care of themselves than the self-destructive characters that made them semi-famous.