A profound but melancholic love story
February 10, 2021
Meeting at the intersection of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Contagion, the new sci-fi romance Little Fish is a quietly devastating and exquisitely rendered tale that would have hit hard even if we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic.
However, the story of an out-of-control virus that causes memory loss rather than respiratory infection is even more ominously timely than its creators could have initially intended. Originally slated to debut last April at the cancelled Tribeca Film Festival, the film finally arrives on demand with scenes of masked bystanders and clamoring crowds outside of hospitals that are now all too familiar. What keeps this from being a shoe-in for Feel-Bad Movie of the Year is the playful and tender chemistry between its two compelling leads.
The touching relationship at the story’s center is between spirited vet tech Emma (Olivia Cooke) and reserved photographer Jude (Jack O’Connell). The two meet on a gloomy Seattle beach one day, courtesy of a lost dog who serves as the perfect icebreaker. We then move through time as Emma and Jude go on their first few dates and eventually move into the same apartment, all while the world is slowly changing around them. The new illness Neuroinflammatory Affliction (NIA) is affecting more people every day, causing memory loss that can be either spontaneous or gradual; Emma confesses she doesn’t know which scenario is worse. Through increasing incidents of forgetfulness, it becomes obvious to Emma that Jude has contracted NIA and the two search frantically to find a cure before it’s too late.
Adapting Aja Gabel’s short story of the same name, writer Mattson Tomlin and director Chad Hartigan weave together hushed voiceover narration, vivid flashbacks, and modest moments of intimacy to utterly heartbreaking effect. Though it sometimes piles on the misery a bit more than it needs to and in ways that aren’t terribly organic to the primary story, the film works best when it focuses on the aching associated with watching a loved one fade away and the desperate longing between Emma and Jude as they work to preserve their shared memories.
With its doomed love story cast against dire circumstances out of the protagonists’ control, Little Fish often reminded me of another dystopian romantic drama: Mark Romanek’s underrated adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.
Both Cooke and O’Connell turn in some of the very best work of their careers. Cooke feels more natural here than anywhere else that I’ve seen her previously, sporting her native English accent when most of her other roles have called for the “standard” American dialect. She graces her character with a fragile optimism that is a perfect fit for poignant lines like, “I find myself wondering how to build a future if you keep having to rebuild the past.”
O’Connell imbues Jude with an earnestness and deference that recalls the work of the late Anton Yelchin, with whom Cooke starred in the 2017 thriller Thoroughbreds. Thanks to O’Connell, Jude’s growing confusion and requisite agitation registers with shattering potency.
In his fourth feature film, Hartigan wisely features composer Keegan DeWitt’s staggering and breathtakingly beautiful music score in the majority of the movie’s scenes, particularly in montages showing the central relationship blossom. During the latter half of his story, he also makes subtle use of unreliable narration, making the audience question if we’re misremembering things or if the NIA-affected characters are. Hartigan occasionally spins his wheels and gets lost in the tragic nature of his film from time to time, but his terrific leads see his vision through.
Though it arrives at a time when viewers may not necessarily be in the mood to take in its oppressively melancholic story, Little Fish is nevertheless a profound reminder of the powerful bonds we hold with those closest to us.
New to streaming this weekend
Debuting on HBO Max is Judas and the Black Messiah, a biopic starring Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield about Black Panther leader Fred Hampton and the member turned FBI informant who betrayed him.
Available to watch on demand is Saint Maud, a psychological horror film starring Morfydd Clark and Jennifer Ehle about a Catholic caretaker who becomes obsessed with saving the soul of her troubled patient.
Also gracing the rental moviescape with its presence is Willy’s Wonderland, an action comedy starring Nicolas Cage and Beth Grant about a janitor squaring off against murderous animatronic mascots who come to life in an abandoned family entertainment center.