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Film Review: “Little Fish” Offers Weak Dramatic Sustenance

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | February 5th, 2021

Film poster: “Little Fish”

Little Fish (Chad Hartigan, 2020) 2 out of 4 stars.

The plague comes in many forms, but the result is the same: the end of the world is upon us, and all that we know is vanishing. Granted, Chad Hartigan’s Little Fish offers evocative visuals and committed performances, but ultimately the story never quite transcends its lugubrious ideas to become the innovative elegy for the human race it longs to be. Despite some interesting ideas about the role memory plays in our sense of self, the film remains mostly just an exercise in melancholy.

Mark Romanek’s 2010 adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go trafficked in a similar atmosphere of dread, yet with far greater punch. Here, the main problem is that the characters are not particularly noteworthy, so as they slowly forget their past and rage in torment, our emotional involvement is minimal. The constant professions of love and subsequent kisses become just a swirl of surface passion, only intermittently touching. Too much of a good thing is often just too much.

l-r: Olivia Cooke and Jack O’ Connell in LITTLE FISH. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.

Olivia Cooke (Sound of Metal) and Jack O’Connell (Trial by Fire) play Emma and Jude, a young married couple whose life history we learn in fractured intervals. Their comfortable world is shattered, as it is for everyone, with the sudden appearance of a new disease, “NIA” (Neuroinflammatory Affliction), which effectively wipes people’s memory banks, either in quick bursts or gradual erosion. There is no apparent cure, though an experimental technique offers some hope for those lucky enough to enter clinical trials. Everyone else just has to wait for the worst.

As the illness makes its inexorable march through the ranks of humanity, we visit, and revisit, events from Emma and Jude’s life together, from how they met to where they went. There’s a clever circular structure that starts us out in a place that is not at all the moment in time we thought it was, though when we finally cycle back to it we’ve sat through over 90 minutes of maudlin grieving. Hartigan (Morris from America) never quite manages to invest the movie, from a short story by Aja Gabel and a script by Mattson Tomlin (Project Power), with the urgent thrust that would lend potency to the narrative. Bad things happen, and sure, that’s unfortunate, but it’s hard to care.

l-r: Jack O’ Connell and Olivia Cooke in LITTLE FISH. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.

That said, Hartigan has a fine sense of editing and mise-en-scène, and deftly handles the memories that slip through Emma and Jude’s grasp, changing the flashbacks depending on who thinks they remember what. It’s a technique that Michel Gondry used to greater effect in his 2004 Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which set the standard for relationship trauma and its connection to the echoes of remembrance. Cooke and O’Connell give it their all, but it’s not quite enough. As a metaphor for the pandemic in which we now find ourselves, Little Fish resonates more than it otherwise might, but of such coincidences great drama is not made.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is a former cohost of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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