How 'Little Joe' Director Jessica Hausner Reimagined 'Body Snatchers,' This Time With a Happy Ending

Bristling with red quills—all stamen, no petal—Little Joe is a tricky flower to keep alive, requiring high temperatures and careful light. But the latest genetically modified product from Plantworks rewards your efforts with mood-lifting oxytocin, released in puffs of pink pollen. Still, is Little Joe's creator, star geneticist Alice Woodard (Emily Beecham), justified in fearing that her plant's happy spritzes are altering human brain chemistry and causing a cascade of nearly imperceptible behavioral changes?

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Alice Woodard (Emily Beecham) begins to suspect something is off with her genetically engineered Little Joes. Magnolia Pictures

As with its most obvious forebears, 1956's Invasion of the Body Snatchers and its 1978 remake, the new science fiction chiller Little Joe initially toys with the genre's traditional uncertainty: Is this creepy, impossible thing happening, or is it a product of the protagonist's paranoia?

In the case of the Little Joe flower, strange reactions reveals themselves in interviews with test subjects and in the demeanor of Alice's son, also named Joe (Kit Connor), who has grown increasingly fond of his personal plant—taken against regulations from Alice's lab at Plantworks. Is Little Joe creating subservient humans who will do anything to protect and propagate the immobile and genetically infertile flower species?

But one scene a little more than midway through Little Joe wreaks havoc on traditional cinematic ambiguities, throwing away our first question with contempt and leaving us with darker suspicions. In one of the creepiest movie scenes of the year, Little Joe disposes, albeit temporarily, with the ambiguity so carefully balanced up to this point, when Joe (human Joe) confesses point-blank to his mother that he has become in thrall to the plant. He tells her he exists in a state of floating comfort, analogous to death, and has become utterly uncaring about human concerns—which has the side effect of making him more socially well-adjusted, having abandoned anxiety for a simple mask of human pretense.

From this point, Little Joe stops asking whether or not its characters have been body-snatched and offers a new question: "What's the difference anyway?" Afterward, Joe tells his mom that he was only kidding, but viewers can't help but see the moment as their single glimpse beneath a new mask, which may soon be donned by every human (or at least those who get Little Joes for Christmas).

While Little Joe's director, Austrian filmmaker Jessica Hausner (Lovely Rita, Amour Fou), described the scene to Newsweek as the most important in the film, she also sees more than horror in the consequences of Little Joe's invisible conquest of humanity.

"I always thought of my film as a film with a happy end," Hausner said. "It is actually a dystopian, negative, bleak look into the future, but compared to the original Invasion, it's a more positive perspective. It has a strange irony in the end, because even though everyone may be changed, it's not so bad at all."

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Is Chris (Ben Whishaw) dedicated to Alice and her work or to the brain-snatching Little Joe? Does it matter? Magnolia Pictures

The original Invasion of the Body Snatchers is widely seen as subtextual commentary on communism—decrying its conformity and reflecting the '50s McCarthyite paranoia about Soviet subversion. But Hausner doesn't see in Little Joe a warning so much as an admission: We have all been compromised already, and our search for some core of uncontaminated humanity beneath social conventions is folly.

"I think you should read it like a joke, a little bit: It doesn't really show," Hausner said. "Who can tell the difference between the pretended feeling and the genuine feeling? If there's a virus that turns people into people who pretend, well, we're already there, there is no difference."

So what, then, does Hausner find most frightening about Little Joe? "The fact that this is already our reality. I find it frightening that some people don't know that it's all a lot of pretending.... This is our way of communicating; this is how we live together. We pretend and are very nice to each other, but I also like to know that most of it is not true. I'm only afraid if people are not aware that this is a lot of pretending."

The essential artifice of human interaction—"Our perception of truth is totally limited, and corrupted," Hausner says—pervades Little Joe on every level, including in its restrained and deeply ambiguous performances, for which lead actor Beecham won the best actress award at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.

"The characters in my films, they're not shown from the individual side of their personality. Instead, I try to show how much we are influenced by our surroundings," Hausner said. "The characters in my films are very often pretending, in the normal way that we do. They are, for example, polite. They know 'this is what has to be said now,' so that's why someone says it. But you always think: 'What does this person really feel? Why doesn't she say what she really thinks?'"

Beecham's Alice encapsulates the sentiment perfectly, offering pinched and uncertain reactions to a colleague's romantic overtures (Ben Whishaw) or vacillating in the face of Little Joe's brain-altered subjects, completely unable to apply her scientific mind to their human (or inhuman) inscrutability.

The distance between minds is bound up in Little Joe's cinematic aesthetic, which is cheerily technological but empty and echoing. Before filming, Hausner rehearsed scenes with her cast until they became as artificial and impenetrably surfaced as small talk.

"This is something we create during shooting," she said. "When I talk to actors, sometimes their attempt is very truthful acting, so I try to make them understand that the scene only works if it looks like they're pretending, or not saying what they really think. We create a second layer that leaves doubt about the true feelings of the character."

But while character behaviors exist with one another in a social context—and are complicated but not essentially different from Little Joe's interference—Hausner's storytelling style in the film captures complexity by playing those surface interactions against each other, like mirrors reflecting themselves to infinity. In this, Hausner's biggest influence wasn't genre films like Invasion or the scientific hubris in Frankenstein but instead the experimental works of filmmaker Maya Deren.

"I have learned a lot from her and have stolen some of her tricks," Hausner said, comparing the narrative structure of Little Joe to Deren's surrealist masterpiece Meshes of the Afternoon, in which a woman (played by Deren) re-experiences a dream that intermixes with reality. "Some moments are repeated; you come back to the same places, even the same framings, so you have that strange feeling of coming back to the place you've already been, and nothing really changes."

Deren may not be an obvious point of comparison for Little Joe (even with a recycled score from frequent Deren collaborator Ito Teiji—an eerie, jagged medley of electronic noises and yipping dogs), particularly since the midcentury avant-garde filmmaker's work was relentlessly centered on the interiority Little Joe rejects. But Little Joe applies Deren's themes to the whole world to suggest that the multiplicities of human experience create the ambient subjective fog in which we all live.

"I don't think we're ever able to really find reason, or find one single truth. And maybe this is what I'm trying to do with my films—create a world with different truths, paradoxical truths," Hausner said. She asserted that we've already been Little Joed. "I think it has already happened. I'm very sure. There are so many invisible influences. Not talking about biochemical influences but ideological influences."

Throughout our interview, Hausner named several ideological influences comparable to Little Joe's pollen—forces we may push against, even as they shape, and are inseparable from, our lived experiences. But it's in the movie's treatment of motherhood where Hausner voices her most optimistic take on Little Joe's possible takeover of humanity.

"Writing the script, I knew I would have this scientist, this female main character Alice, who is creating a plant but is also a mother. This was really an important setup for the whole story, because I think our society doesn't appreciate mothers who work. Although society is changing, of course, we still have this bias against it," Hausner said.

If it wasn't already apparent in Alice giving Little Joe the same name as her son, Alice's work-life balance is affected by sexist expectations, some of which Hausner encountered when she became a mother and continued making movies.

"It should be really obvious that the feelings Alice has for her child are very similar to feelings a father can have for his child—a father can have love for his child and also love for something else in his life. She's also able to focus on being a very good scientist."

With all human sentiments subordinated to the needs of all the Little Joes, Alice can be free, suspended in a new social order where the expectations and prejudices of others can't touch her psyche. By replacing the pretending we do to protect ourselves with a pretending performed to maintain a society that can support Little Joe, Hausner has written one of the most surprising happy endings in science fiction.

"We are so proud to be human, but maybe that's not the best thing we achieve," Hausner said.