Morris from America, director Chad Hartigan utilizes small resources of his science-fiction genre piece to explore the themes of love, loss, memory, and disease. His third feature Little Fish is very ambitious, grounded in an intimate romance centered around a fully realized world of the near future which looks eerily similar to the one we are living in now as a virus is spreading and impacting people’s memories–which even impacts younger people as they find their memories fading away. What starts out as a common chronicle of love at first sight, eventually phases into an emotionally draining, but undeniably artful exploration about an uncertain world dealing with an uncertain disease where the FDA and pharmaceutical companies are working hard in finding a vaccine and treatments to prevent individuals from losing their memories even more. Beneath the surface is a romantic love story , and some of the most affecting sci-fi films have in fact been films circled around love, think Godard’s Alphaville, Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) Soderbergh’s Solaris (2002), Aronofsky’s The Fountain (2006), Spike Jonze’s Her (2013) and Alex Garland’s Ex-Machina (2015.) Most closely, the film resembles the Charlie Kaufman-Michel Gondry masterpiece Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), since that film also deals with erasing memories from love.
Often when we think of the sci-fi genre–we think of all the futuristic set-pieces and visuals that consists of a dystopian future, alternate realities, and space adventure. But romance can play a pivotal point with the genre that makes the material feel less hallow and more involving. While not having the budget or scope for a larger scale sci-fi film, Hartigan is able to bring his resources to the table with sublime aesthetics, a high-concept material, and a few characters that circles the material into feeling futuristic and the Hartigan and his collaborators pull it off. The drama is about a married couple who are struggling to keep their relationship together during a pandemic of a virus known as Neuroinflammatory Affliction (NIA) that erases people’s memories, that also includes any memories and recollections one has of other people.
(Courtesy IFC Films)
The high concept is a cerebral and equally intimate watch, one that is also bleak and taxing to sit through, but the film has a heart with its tender moments along with some elegant craftsmanship that makes it a notable experience. The couple is Emma (Olivia Cooke) and Jude (Jack O’Connell), we experience through flashbacks how they first encountered each other, and we get many other fragmented and exquisitely shot flashbacks that observe their love together. Jude ends up coming down with the virus as he begins developing symptoms of the disease as memories begin to fade away, and Emma is left attempting to deal with it as the world eagerly awaits a cure and treatments.
Despite some contrivances in the screenplay that is written by Mattson Tomlin and based on a short story by Aja Gabel, some elements end up becoming stratagems for the story as both Emma and Jack happen to be artists that can record their memories since Emma is a writer and Jude does photography. What anchors the film from being overly gimmicky is how well constructed Hartigan’s direction and flow is, along with some emotionally charged performances by Cooke and O’Connell. You will find sharply earned sympathy and sadness in how fragile and doomed their relationships becomes throughout the course of the yarn. While the film was produced a year before the COVID-19 pandemic, there are certainly some coincidental parallels one can draw in the world that’s presented in Little Fish that echoes our own COVID-19 infected world– as each of the characters begin to cope and adapt in how to live with disease as science attempts to sort itself out for the sake of humanity. Sound familiar?
The virus of course brings adversity for Emma and Jude, and what starts off with just minor concerns quickly regresses into more alarming symptoms. Jude can’t remember certain things that make one’s life unfold comfortably day-by-day as he fail’s to remember his dog’s dame, or other vivid details involving certain memories including important details of his wedding day with Emma. There are even moments where he doesn’t recognize Emma, as she attempts to keep Jude focused and prevent his memories from decaying. It becomes a very contemplative and philosophical film that asks existential questions on how challenging it is to structure a future with someone who can’t remember their past.
Like the work of Terrence Malick, Wong Kar-Wai, and Bai Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Little Fish explores how relationships and the love from other people are really just moments that occur in a slipping time capsule that fade into a collage of fragmented and shared memories that eventually fade away into oblivion. While the film is overly precious and glossy that relies a little too much on many moments that come off a little too “cutesy” like their first kiss at a club, painting their walls from gray to yellow that involves a paint fight, and a forced metaphor in front of a fish aquarium that is elevated by a woozy and ethereal score by Keegan DeWitt. Hartigan is able to elevate the material from being disingenuous or gushy as the film finds its own wise and mature sensibilities.
The resolution Hartigan reveals how the warmth we find in the moment is what builds the foundations and elations of love, and these memories are crucial in being the true anecdote in restoring Emma and Jude’s fulfillment–in which they constantly their love and relationship placed into jeopardy as Jude’s memory begins to fade again. It’s some profound truths on the concept of love, and how our shared experiences with others manifest our perceptions and realities. There is something commanding about the vision on display from both Hartigan and his screenwriter in their adapted material. Both bleak and harmonic, Little Fish at its core is a delicate and tender love story that captures a lot of emotional truths.