LITTLE JOE: An Unsettling if Uneven Modern Body-Snatchers Tale

Jessica Hausner’s psychological eco-thriller works best when creepy, subtle chaos finally takes root in this Cannes-fêted film

Little Joe follows experimental botanist Alice (Cannes Best Actress winner Emily Beecham) as she puts the finishing touches on a flower species that’s genetically designed to boost the happiness of its caretakers. When she’s not diving headfirst into her work, Alice struggles to take care of her increasingly distant teenage son, Joe; Alice also reckons with her feelings of guilt and inadequacy as a mother with a psychiatrist (Lindsay Duncan). Determined to repair her relationship with her son, Alice brings one of the experimental plants home, which she dubs “Little Joe.” But when the plant’s super-effective pollen reveals a more sinister, Body Snatchers side to these new plants, Alice descends into a world where people’s outward emotions and appearances are not as they seem.

There’s much to admire about Little Joe: the update of a Triffids or Body Snatchers storyline to today’s world of genetic engineering is a novel and timely one, and Hausner imbues her material with a deliberate, creeptastic unease. Little Joe also places much more of an emotional premium on the psychology of its characters, in particular Emily Beecham’s nuanced performance of a mother in crisis. Alice is a driven yet vulnerable lead, whose emotions are kept closely guarded lest any sign of weakness or workplace unprofessionalism slip out. She’s well-counterpointed by her coworkers Chris (Ben Whishaw) and Bella (Kerry Fox), both of whom struggle to contain their inner thoughts as Little Joe’s effect takes hold.

Little Joe is at its best when exploiting this widening rift between emotion and personality. As the plant takes over their minds, the characters exist in this state of bliss, dispensing pleasantries in an increasingly frustrating jovial way. At the same time, all of their cares and worries shift solely onto caring for and propagating Little Joe, and it’s truly unnerving how “normal” this shift feels over the course of Hausner’s film. Another director would more than happily point a neon sign over this obsession over Little Joe to mark it as a stand-in for some other prescient societal ill, but Hausner’s skill is in her restraint in this regard. It’s far more fascinating to track this infectious obsession, as if Little Joe wasn’t taking people over completely, but instead exploiting what already lies dormant in its victims.

At the same time, Little Joe’s restraint can work against in just as much as it does in its favor. The impenetrability of some of its characters can fairly be seen as vague inscrutability, and some of the later leaps of the film don’t feel as earned as the delicious dread that precede them. On the whole, Little Joe is an intriguing tale of rapid depersonalization, though its overall effect may vary depending on how much viewers are willing to imprint onto it.


Magnolia presents Little Joe in a DVD-only release. The film is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen with a 5.1 English surround audio track. English closed-captions are presented for the main feature. Image and sound quality are high for the format–especially as the film ventures into its more experimental visual and soundscapes. The film’s color palate remains rich and distinct without fading into lower-resolution crush, especially during the neon-red sequences in the Little Joe greenhouses.

Special Features

  • Q&A: A half-hour post-screening Q&A with writer/director Hausner and actress Emily Beecham at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Hausner and Beecham go into greater detail at nailing the uneasy tone of the film, Hausner’s ideas of a “happier” ending to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and the use of color throughout the film.

Little Joe is now available on DVD courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

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Little Joe — [DVD]

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