“A potent emotional experience at its strongest, and yet one where there’s seemingly something missing that would connect all the pieces together at its less accomplished.“
by Ken Bakely
It’s easy to be a little bit startled by the setup of Chad Hartigan’s Little Fish. The movie is, after all, set during a global pandemic, and the horrors of sickness, loss, and upheaval are explored in depth throughout. The infectious disease invented here is neuroinflammatory affliction (NIA), like a contagious dementia. It spreads in unknown ways, and causes memory loss – it can either ravage a victim’s mind all at once, like a light going out; or slowly over time, like a fire flickering to smoke. But though this virus explodes throws the world into chaos, Hartigan – working from a script by Mattson Tomlin that’s based on a short story by Aja Gabel – pulls us inwards, primarily examining the effects of these circumstances on his two lead characters. Emma (Olivia Cooke) and Jude (Jack O’Connell) are a young, recently married couple. Emma is a veterinarian; Jude is a photographer, and he has begun to experience symptoms of the illness. But for as much attention as the movie gives to desperate attempts to search for any kind of relief or cure, it is also an examination of the actions and choices that we take when remembering. The ability to share and recollect moments – even those as elemental as who they are and what they mean to each other – is now something that Jack and Emma are all too aware is a finite luxury, and one that is being taken from them with horrific speed.
For the most part, Little Fish remains laser-focused on these two characters. Hartigan makes extensive use of flashbacks to both depict the narrative of their relationship, and display the moments being gradually forgotten as shared experiences. In the lead roles, Cooke and O’Connell give commendable performances: Jack and Emma’s uncertainties in the opening stages of their lives together are still rooted in hope and the promise of a bright future of vast potential, and it’s painfully and heartrendingly contrasted against the anxieties and anguish that come as the progression of Jack’s disease gradually overwhelms them. The actors understand the complexities of these comparisons and work well to bring them to life. But the film does expand outwards from their lives – sometimes, for instance, to investigate the experiences of two close friends of theirs, NIA-afflicted musician Ben (Raúl Castillo) and his partner Samantha (Soko) – and when it does, there’s a curious feeling of detachment that forms. Suddenly, when the movie reminds of us all that’s going on with other people, there’s some dissonance with the movie’s intensely insular perspective. Even moreso, when the film veers its angling out further to depict the ways that Emma and Jack look for potential cures, looking at the news which depicts a world in increasing disarray as there seems to be setback after setback, there’s a need for more grounding and information to drive things further home. Nothing here is quite as well-developed as these two characters and their experiences with each other, and everything else tends to feel a bit tacked on in comparison.
It makes Little Fish both a potent emotional experience at its strongest, and yet one where there’s seemingly something missing that would connect all the pieces together at its less accomplished – there were times I simply wanted to get a better understanding of its world and what it’s like to live within it. And yet, there is so much to admire here about what is accomplished, and done with such detail and care. Sean McElwee’s cinematography carefully switches between the haze of the past and the cold, unfeeling realness of present fears, and Keegan DeWitt’s score underlines the dread of the film’s most harrowing moments. There are certainly instances of considerable power, but somewhere between its efforts to remain closely focused and to wonder about how society at large functions – and how its characters experience it – it doesn’t bridge the gap, and it winds up less effective than either of those two intriguing ideas. Instead, Hartigan and company achieve the most when returning to the story’s central themes and ideals in relation to Jack and Emma’s story. From the film’s larger subplots about the pandemic, to the actions that they take to try and change their fates, there is still a moving and personal reflection on what it truly means to connect and remember – and the existential emptiness that comes in its absence.