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Marina Antunes [Film Festival 10.01.19] Austria horror thriller drama

The idea that we feel the need to play Supreme Being, changing and altering the natural order of things by genetically engineering anything and everything is eternally fascinating and scary.

For the most part, consumers keep a watchful eye on how the food we consume is altered but in the case of Austrian auteur Jessica Hausner's English language debut Little Joe, the story unfolds in the world of genetically altered flowers and while the idea of humanity wanting to alter flowers is pretty low on the list of things that the film tackles, it's certainly there, always looming in the background.

The film stars Emily Beecham and Ben Whishaw as Alice and Chris, a pair of scientists working on developing a flower that emits a scent that triggers endorphins and makes you feel happy. But the flower, lovingly called "Little Joe" after Alice's son, only releases the happy scent if it feels loved.

When a co-worker's dog disappears for a short period of time, the woman becomes convinced that the dog is no longer "really" her dog and that Little Joe has somehow changed her beloved pet. It's here that Little Joe really begins to build momentum and with every scene, it becomes clear that the flower is, perhaps, really out to transform the world.

Ultimately, Little Joe is a cautionary tale of what happens when we mess with the order of things but from a storytelling perspective, it's a fascinating exploration of a woman fighting to balance work and motherhood. One could almost see Hausner's film as an observation on society's inability to accept that women can be both successful working professionals and good mothers and in the end, Alice is forced to make a decision that will leave her with only one of those things.

Little Joe is steeped in mood. Everything from the set and costume design to the cinematography from Hausner's long-time collaborator Martin Gschlacth, work in service of the feeling of unease throughout the film but nothing permeates the picture quite as effectively as Teiji Ito's score which lends a distinct rhythm to the storytelling.

As serious as the themes of Little Joe are, Hausner and co-writer Geraldine Bajard infuse moments of levity into the film that are a welcome reprise from the tension and while some might be put off by the dry humour on display, it's yet another example of Hausner's skill.

Little Joe isn't the average thriller but those willing to take a chance on a slightly offbeat movie about a "killer" plant won't be disappointed.

Little Joe plays again at VIFF on October 2. For more details and ticket information visit the festival website.

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