In the climate-controlled laboratories of Planthouse Biotechnologies, something new is growing, a genetically engineered flower which, rather than the more commonly desired traits of the ability to withstand drought or frost, or thrive with limited nutrients in the soil, is actually the reverse, demanding near constant attention.
Requiring daily watering and a consistently warm environment, the seemingly innocuous firm, leafless, leathery stem and single flower bud at the apex has been bred to express a single specific trait, releasing a scent which will act as a precursor to the hormone oxytocin, leading to feelings of pleasure, joy and connectedness.
Developed by Alice Woodard, she named the new strain “Little Joe” in honour of her teenage son, and despite knowing it is a breach of regulations she smuggles a sample out to their home for him to take care of, irregardless that the full schedule of testing on the new species is incomplete, confident in her work and the breakthrough it represents.
Directed by Jessica Hausner from a script co-written with Géraldine Bajard, Little Joe is a low-key scientific thriller, touching on the possibilities and ethics of genetic engineering, the safeguards which are supposed to be in place to prevent their misuses and the possible unintended consequences of an organism “going rogue” but never adequately exploring them.
Developed to be sterile, Little Joe at first displays an unexpected but apparently non-threatening behaviour, releasing copious pollen into the atmosphere in the lab, but after her dog begins to act strangely senior lab assistant Bella (Shallow Grave‘s Kerry Fox) becomes convinced that the same symptoms are being expressed by others in the lab, among them Alice’s colleague Chris (Spectre‘s Ben Whishaw).
Hesitant to act without evidence stronger than impression or supposition, Into the Badlands‘ Emily Beecham is Alice, focused on her goal and detached from all else; her son Joe (Mr. Holmes‘ Kit Connor) existing in only a fragment of her attention, has he really changed or is her perception coloured by her guilt at neglecting him?
The premise of Little Joe centred on minute but noticeable changes in the behaviour of the characters as they are co-opted by the plant in order to assist in its propogation, the film is hampered by the consciously stilted performances, the characters awkward from the outset, as clinical as their workstations, emphasised by the long takes and the barely moving camera.
An unimpressive hybrid of Star Trek‘s This Side of Paradise and The Stepford Wives, the slow creeping unease of the latter is present but it lacks the bold style, lively performances and sharp script of that classic, the pacing that of watching plants grow and the bloom disappointing, suggesting pruning would have been the kindest cut.