Review: Expressive 'Little Fish' tackles big ideas
Courtesy of IFC Films
We’re living in the age of art reflecting reality. Suddenly, every movie, book, or television show is undertaking new meaning in the era of COVID-19. The word “timely” has been tossed around quite a bit in regards to films about ravenous diseases’ because it’s hard to ignore the parallels. These thoughts manifested during my viewing of Chad Hartigan's dreary but serene sci-fi drama “Little Fish,” which could be this generation's “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”
Hartigan’s well versed and poetic story is set in the backdrop of a world afflicted by an unseen and common enemy: A disease dubbed NIA or “neuroinflammatory infection.” It causes severe memory loss, is extremely dangerous and there’s no cure. So begins the tale of couple Emma (Olivia Cooke) and Jude (Jack O’Connell) who are both trying to recoup memories as Jude is quickly succumbing to the disease. While they aren’t the only ones dealing with this pandemic, Emma and Jude’s relationship finds an emotional core worthy of investment.
Throughout “Little Fish,” we see random, nameless citizens roaming the streets with dog tags that detail where they live and a phone number (so they can be returned home). Couples, some married for decades, are waking up scared because they don’t know who's sleeping in their bed. There’s the bus driver who suddenly forgets how to drive and the marathon runner who never stops running. When an experimental cure starts gaining traction, people flood the streets demanding the government make treatment available. Haritgan paints a bleak portrait of a society in shambles, but a necessary one that resonates to current predicaments.
Amidst this chaos is a swooning romance between Jude and Emma who are both deeply in love with each other and it shows. They’re lucky in the sense that NIA isn’t hitting Jude as quickly as others, allowing time to seek help and land a coveted spot in the limited clinical trials, but Jude still keeps polaroids around the house with sharpie writings and Emma grills him on tiny details of their wedding to keep his brain stimulated.
Hartigan incorporates fun narrative devices between Jude and Emma as they navigate past memories, stopping and starting like an editor trying to get his piece correct. Jude will remember the event one way and Emma another. It’s a similar tactic last seen in “Wandar Darkly,” but it wasn’t nearly as effective. Not to mention Cooke and O’Connell make an immaculate on-screen duo. Cooke, in particular, provides a convincing portrayal of the struggles Emma goes through watching the man she loves wilt away. Meanwhile, O’Connell - who doesn’t get nearly enough credit for how consistently good he is - finds the balance of a man coming to terms with his sickness.
Though the origin of NIA is mostly unknown, and considering how frantic the world reacts to it, one can’t help but see the missed narrative opportunity to explore such a unique premise. But the script and performances are zoned in enough that while more answers are warranted, we aren’t completely unfulfilled to where things end up. I was never confused as to who these characters are and where their motivations lie, which can sometimes get lost in translation, but Haritgan knows the game he’s playing. He’s aided by Sean McElwee’s pristine cinematography and Josh Crockett’s tight editing. Together, they help deliver a tiny film that tackles big ideas in these fractured times.
LITTLE FISH is now playing in theaters and is available via digital and on-demand.