Chad Hartigan’s clever sci-fi drama “Little Fish” sums its chief concerns in one grim line: “When your disaster is everyone’s disaster, how do you grieve?” A change of pace for the director of “Morris From America,” Hartigan’s weighty romance takes place in world afflicted by memory loss, with all the devastating results implied by that premise. Beautifully acted and grounded in relatable emotions despite the lofty premise, “Little Fish” plays as both an effective metaphor for Alzheimer’s, and the disintegration of a relationship without closure or reason.
Lead couple Emma (Olivia Cooke) and Jude (Jack O’Connell) are battling to recover their memories of each other as Jude succumbs to the affliction, which so far leaves Emma untouched. They aren’t the only ones working through that problem: In “Little Fish,” everyone in the world is collectively losing their memory to something called NIA, or “neuroinflammatory affliction.” It’s first seen in victims who suddenly forget who they are or what they’re doing, such as a fisherman who forgets how to steer a ship, and so he throws himself off it to swim home. Then there’s the bus driver who forgets why he’s driving, so he steps off and walks into the middle of the road. “There was something beautiful to these stories at first. People whose lives were whisked away from them,” Emma says in a plaintive voiceover that haunts the film from start to finish. “But those stories became more frequent, and then a scarier narrative began to unfold.”
For some, NIA hits out of nowhere and fast, but not for Jude who, after recently marrying Emma, starts to forget little things, like where he put the keys, or what argument he had with Emma, who puts dogs to sleep in a vet’s office by day, about taking in a stray. But it starts to get worse as he forgets their apartment number, or when she discovers little, “Memento”-like Polaroids of her, with her name, labeled “wife.” Jude is a photographer, while Emma has aspirations of being a writer, which are both in themselves acts of making a record to try not forget a story or series of moments. While not exactly subtle, the metaphor works well in Mattson Tomlin’s script, which adapts a short story by Aja Gabel into a highly symbolic world.
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Emma’s mother, she learns via telephone, is also losing herself to NIA, as are her friends. One terrifying sequence finds a pal of Emma and Jude, a musician named Ben (Raúl Castillo of “Vida” and “Looking”), first forget how to play music and then turning hysterical and homicidal as he forgets his own girlfriend, Samantha (played by the musician Soko, who offers up a few lovely synth-pop tracks off her forthcoming album, “Feel Feelings”).
It’s no stretch to say that the panic rapidly taking over the world — especially in another harrowing scene on a ferry where a confused woman hurls herself into the water — takes on the horror of a dystopian pandemic. There are also echoes of Claire Carré’s 2015 indie “Embers,” about a world dissolved by memory loss, though the focus in “Little Fish” is more microcosmic, and specifically on a relationship as it crumbles.
Olivia Cooke, the breakout of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” provides a convincing embodiment of the internal and external panic Emma experiences as she watches the man she loves, whom she married barely a year ago, disappear before her eyes. O’Connell, meanwhile, balances the frustration of his situation, and the obliviousness to it, much like an Azheimer’s patient who hasn’t totally sunk into their condition. It’s their palpable chemistry that carries “Little Fish” even as the scientific aspects of the story grows murky.
The pathophysiology and prognosis of NIA are left mostly unexplained, which may be realistic as society scrambles to figure out what the hell is going on, but it’s such a fascinating premise that to leave it unexplored because of a near-constant fidelity to the central love story feels unsatisfying. In the third act, a potential antidote to NIA is discovered, and Emma and Jude even attempt to administer it at home, but it’s never quite clear exactly how this all works. Still, it’s a testament to Hartigan and Tomlin that we actually do want to know more.
It might be a cliche to call a movie or its atmosphere “dreamlike,” but “Little Fish” makes good on the term, thanks to the swoony cinematography of Sean McElwee (“Horse Girl”), who soaks this world in rich color even as the life bleeds out of it; and Josh Crockett’s nimble editing that shirks linear storytelling, but never leaves us confused, or at least not pleasantly disoriented. “Little Fish” also offers up another gorgeous score from Keegan DeWitt — the best composer working in American indies today — who draws from Michael Galasso and Shigeru Umebayashi’s work on “In the Mood for Love,” another kind of “sliding doors” romance we know to be doomed from the start.
It’s also a cliche to compare a science-fiction romance movie to the incomparable “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” but Hartigan, making his first genuine foray into sc-fi here, must be a fan. The ending and beginning of “Little Fish” borrow a little too much from that head-scrambling story of a doomed relationship unfolding in one fragile mind. Nevertheless, “Little Fish” is a loving ode that stands on its own as a creative, inventive romance for a broken time.
“Little Fish” was scheduled to premiere in U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.
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