We’ve had a small handful of films made in the last year that have a pandemic as their backdrop, or were filmed during the current pandemic and either do or do not address it. But director Chad Hartigan’s latest, Little Fish, was shot pre-pandemic but actually is about a very different type of virus that wreaks havoc on the planet without actually killing anyone. Written by Mattson Tomlin (adapted from a short story by Aja Gabel), this film’s pandemic attacks the mind instead of the body. It removes or distorts memories in a way that seems far quicker and more sinister than dementia, and very often, one day you just wake up and don’t recognize the loved one in front of you or where you are, strong emotions suddenly gone. Although the disease is not fatal, when many people sense it taking hold, they end their lives rather than endure it.
But that all begins as more of background noise to an intense love story between Emma (Olivia Cooke) and Jude (Jack O’Connell), who meet on a beach and never let go of each other. At one point early on, we’re told their wedding date is October 2021, so this is only set a few months from now, adding an eerie quality to the storyline and a foreboding sense of dread to this romance. But this couple is so charming and committed that we’re able to push that aside, at least for a while. Someone asks “When your disaster is everyone’s disaster, how do you grieve?” and that becomes the tough question that needs to get answered here.
First the couple sees the disease destroy their best friends, another couple Ben (Raúl Castillo) and Samantha (Soko), when it takes hold of Ben’s memory in the cruelest of ways. In his other movies, such as This Is Martin Bonner and Morris from America, Hartigan excels at building up his characters and making us care deeply about them before any drama or friction rears its head, and that’s certainly the case here. And when Jack starts to reveal symptoms, the way that the couple formulate ways to clue him in to specific memories is fascinating and ultimately heartbreaking.
At some point in the story, a procedure is created that is said to cure the condition, but only a select few are chosen to have it. Then videos start popping up online of doctors showing people how to perform the procedure on their own, but it’s a delicate one that is basically a type of brain surgery through the mouth, and amateur hour doesn’t go so well. But Emma is a veterinarian so she has a steady hand, and Jude asks her to perform the procedure on him. I won’t say how things turn out, but it does give us a more direct and certain path to the end of this tale.
Admittedly, I’m not exactly sure of the point of Little Fish or what lessons we’re meant to take away from what is most certainly an emotional and beautifully acted work. I just wish it came together a little more clearly. As it is, the film is more of a series of loosely connected vignettes told out of order (though it’s always clear where we are in the chronology). We do get a peak into Jude’s failing memory, as Hartigan opts to show us how his mind is misremembering things, and even our heads spin attempting to remember sequences we just saw an hour ago. It’s a great way to put the audience in the headspace of a character, but the journey is wrought with uncertainty and anxiety. Little Fish feels like a simple story, but there are layers and a complexity that is subtle, beautiful, and adds to the mystique of the love affair. This is one of those rare movies that I liked because of its flaws and not despite them.
The film is now playing theatrically at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema and available on VOD.
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