Among the happiness flowers: Emily Beecham as scientist Alice Woodard. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Little Joe is a science-fiction film that is not set in the future. It is set in a time that looks very much like the year we have just left, 2019, and the year we are now experiencing, 2020. The technologies and science in the film are all realistic, all believable. Its scientists are developing a flower that makes humans feel happier.

To make this possible, a virus is used as a vector (transporter) of genetic materials that manipulate the genetic structure of a specific target, a flowering plant. The more a human cares for this plant, the happier the plant makes its caretaker by way of a scent that connects the flower to the mammalian nose. If the scientists succeed, this flower will be sold in the marketplace and make the investors behind the research fantastically rich.

The scientist leading the project is Alice Woodard (Emily Beecham). She knows what she is doing. She has great confidence in herself and in her command of the science of plant breeding. She has a son, Joe, in his tweens, and a broken marriage. Joe wants his mother to date a man at her lab who has the hots for her. This is where things stand with the Woodard family.

The director behind Little Joe is the underappreciated but brilliant Austrian filmmaker Jessica Hausner. Her last outing, Amour Fou (2014), is set in Berlin in the early 19th century and concerns a romantic-era poet and essayist, Heinrich von Kleist. What connects that film with Little Joe is Hausner's pacing and sense of what I can only describe as film space. Like Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda (Shoplifters), Hausner never rushes a scene but wrings as much as she can out of it—the performance itself, as well as the blocking of the performance, and the space of the performance.

She wants you to be aware of the development of the story, but without losing a sense of its ambience—the story's amplifiers and also its distractions. The former intensifies and deepens the story; the latter reminds us that a story is not isolated but happens simultaneously as other stories are also happening. This is indeed the importance of extras in a film. Do not ignore them. They must never be simply part of the background, but always be other stories that are just not being told.

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When you watch a work by Hausner, always look at the window behind her actors, or what they are wearing, or the arrangement of utensils and other objects on the dining room table. In Little Joe, pay attention to the extras and also to the evil flowers, and the color and motions of the petals, and to where the plants are placed in the lab or in a home.

Keep your eye on the colors of the furniture in the lab's cafeteria. It is also telling a story: Yes, the science behind those flowers might be crazy and may make a bad world worse (the feeling of happiness they induce is not, after all, real), but those plant-green chairs in the cafeteria also have their own and possibly very sad story to tell.

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