★★★★☆

In her sixth feature, Austrian director Jessica Hausner brings an intense, minimalistic creepiness to this science fiction tale of floral manipulation. Read as a loose adaptation of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Little Joe is a gripping and visually striking satire of essentialist maternal instinct and the contemporary anxiety of wellbeing.

Opening on a disorienting, rotating shot as scientists mechanically tend to rows of laboratory flowerbeds, Little Joe quickly establishes a disquieting tone in which the eerie contrasted spectacle of teal-clad scientists and their scarlet charges is subsumed into the banality of complacent routine. The cast, headed by a pageboy-coiffured Emily Beecham and Ben Whishaw, underpin an ineffable Britishness to this kind of horror – an unspoken, barely perceptible unbalance to everything.

The film’s eeriness is deepened through sound design that is unnervingly quiet: much of the dialogue sounds conspicuously dubbed – check out Whishaw’s uncanny line reading in the cafeteria lunch queue – while the squirting of the plant feeders subtly waters a growing sense of dread. Little Joe’s tone is very reminiscent of one already harnessed by contemporaries Alice Lowe, Matthew Holness and Ben Wheatley, where reality feels tilted at an 85-degree angle. This a world in which the aesthetics of British 1970s interior decoration clash with smartphones and social media, where the scrabbling occupants of an ant farm signal systemic breakdown and a close up of something as mundane as a patterned curtain foretells domestic terror.

In the corner of the strange reality in which Little Joe exists, Alice (Beecham) and Chris are geneticists specialising in developing a new species of flower. The eponymous Little Joe – their newest creation, named after Alice’s son (an effortlessly frighting Kit Connor) – emits a pheromone designed to calm its owners and give them a general sense of wellbeing. Meanwhile, the plants have been stripped of their ability to reproduce in order to protect their value as intellectual property.

Under pressure to get the plant ready for market, Alice’s boss, Karl (David Wilmot) is sceptical that Alice has followed proper safety procedure in creating the plant.  Long-serving grower and noted kook Bella (Kerry Fox) is also suspicious of a plant that can subtly affect mood. Bella’s antipathy towards the project grows when she claims that her dog has been infected by the plants. Slowly, Alice too begins to suspect something sinister in her seeded offspring, noting subtle changes of behaviour in her son after she presents one of the plants to him as a gift.

Little Joe posits modern society’s obsession with wellbeing – a complex that incorporates therapy, chemical intervention and socioeconomic pressures – as a somatising drug that convinces us that anxiety is something for the individual to overcome internally, rather than a rational response to external systemic forces exerting their control. In calling back to Invasion of The Bodysnatchers and The Stepford Wives, Little Joe uses genre tropes to question essentialist assumptions around maternal instincts, asking how far these apparently natural drives are actually the product of invisible forces exerting their control on our behaviour.

Christopher Machell | @MachellFilm