Plants Have Feelings: Jessica Hausner’s Little Joe

Jessica Hausner’s Cannes-winning feature film LITTLE JOE stars Emily Beecham (HAIL, CAESAR!) as a plant biologist who engineers a new breed of flowers intended to make those who take care of them happy. The flowers do so by releasing a hormone, oxytocin, which is the same hormone that is released in mothers when breastfeeding. However, the new plant—which Beecham’s character Alice names Little Joe after her teenage son Joe—has the side effect of making its owners bond with it a little too strongly. The plant becomes like the Creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, with a will separate than that of its creator, and Alice struggles with letting it go. LITTLE JOE premiered at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival where Beecham won Best Actress. It will be distributed to theaters by Magnolia Pictures beginning December 6. Film at Lincoln Center hosted a preview screening of LITTLE JOE on November 8, featuring Emily Beecham and Jessica Hausner in person, which Science & Film attended.

The pathogenesis of Little Joe—the way that the plant infects its owners—is explained in the film as being caused by virus vectors that were used in the plant breeding process. LITTLE JOE’s science advisors include Dr. Elisabeth Stögmann, a neurologist at the Medical University of Vienna’s Department of Neurology, and Dr. Alex Zimprich, also a neurologist at the Medical University of Vienna whose focus is genetics.

At Lincoln Center we asked Jessica Hausner how she worked with scientists to develop the film’s story. “How could a plant ever really invade a human being?” she asked them. Hausner continued:

“I was working with a neurologist, plant geneticist, and a human geneticist. They discussed this question for a while. They thought maybe it could be a bacteria, or a fungus, and finally they said a virus. A virus is very likely to mutate, so this is why they said it is not very likely—but it is very possible—that a virus that is used for gene transfer in plants, if circumstances cause it to mutate, could develop into a virus that is harmful to humans or the human brain. It’s not likely but it is theoretically possible. That is all I needed because the story doesn’t want to be likely...”

LITTLE JOE is written, directed, and produced by Jessica Hausner. It is co-written by Géraldine Bajard. In addition to Emily Beecham, the film stars Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox, and Kit Connor. Hausner underscores the film’s eerie tone with music by Japanese composer Teiji Ito, who composed the music for experimental filmmaker Maya Deren’s MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON. LITTLE JOE will be in theaters in the U.S. beginning December 6.

Cover image: Ben Whishaw and Emily Beecham in Little Joe, directed by Jessica Hausner. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.