Recommendation: The horror elements are mostly replaced with atmospheric tension, camera tension and solid lead performances, but Little Joe falls never quite reaches its promise. 5/10.

IMDB Synopsis: Alice, a single mother, is a dedicated senior plant breeder at a corporation engaged in developing new species. Against company policy, she takes one home as a gift for her teenage son and names it after him but soon starts fearing it.

The horror label is not quite apt for Little Joe, a film centered around a bio company that is attempting to engineer wellbeing via a genetically modified flower named, Little Joe. A tense and sometimes upsetting film about shortcuts to happiness and the dangers of playing God, Little Joe only dips it toes into the horror genre pool. Mostly set in a clinically clean corporate greenhouse and laboratory, Little Joe is masterful in crafting tension, sowing paranoia, and transforming characters’ cheery moods into the eery and strained. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t pay off the incredible mood it built, ending flat and unsatisfactorily. Despite leaving the audience wanting more, Little Joe does offer a lot that is aesthetically pleasing—both visually and aurally—along with strong performances from its protagonist.

Set in an idealized and clinically clean version of England, Little Joe follows Alice Woodward (Emily Beecham) as a horticulturalist who has bio-engineered a plant to increase happiness in its owners, named Little joe after her real son, Joe (Kit Connor). What could go wrong using virus vectors and genetic modification to change peoples’ emotions and perceptions of reality? It turns out Little Joe’s pollen is infecting people, but rather than creating happiness it strips those of their individuality and personality. But it doesn’t turn folks into killer zombies nor does it swing into comedic territory like the tv show Braindead. It’s much more mundane, dry… and frankly a little boring.

Naturally, Alice, the divorced workaholic mother who focuses all of her time and effort on Little Joe rather than her teenage Joe, the film is a weaving a cautionary tale in the vein of “there are no shortcuts to happiness” or “there’s no substitute for a real family.” That doesn’t stop Alice from surreptitiously gifting a Little Joe plant to her son. One by one, Alice’s coworkers and son are infected by the pollen, who are all working to protect and help the plant multiply.

As the film tensely follows Alice unraveling the mystery surrounding Little Joe’s true nature, it’s certainly a fun journey to behold. Cinematographer Martin Gschlacht’s camera languorously pans and inches throughout the scenes, painting the viewer an immersive and intimate portrait. The score oscillates between atmospheric and upsetting, balancing lo-fi electronica and percussion to great effect. Unfortunately, the film is not more than the sum of its parts. Emily Beecham (and costar Ben Whishaw as Chris) is great, the looks and feel of the film are top notch from Austrian director Jessica Hausner, yet Little Joe ends up feeling flat and empty. The wrapper is nice, but the filling leaves a bit to be desired.

MVP: Emily Beecham as Alice gives a greta role as a workaholic, single mother trying her best. It’s just that her love and effort are misplaced into a plant that seemingly takes over the world.

Highlights: The aforementioned roving cameras as almost imperceptible at times, but really plus up certain scenes. Ben Whishaw’s turn as a stalker-ish coworker/love interest is very believable. The score is pitch perfect.

Director: Jessica Hausner

Studio: Magnolia Pictures // Original release date: December 6, 2019 (USA)