Review by David Baldwin
Emma (Olivia Cooke) and Jude (Jack O’Connell) are a young married couple who have their whole lives ahead of them. That is, until a viral pandemic breaks out where those afflicted lose their memories. When Jude begins to show symptoms of the disease, the couple comes together to preserve their relationship and the memories that go with it for as long as they can.
Another movie about a pandemic? REALLY?! That was my thinking before I pressed play on Little Fish, Chad Hartigan’s rather timely sci-fi romance film. Much like everyone else, the real life pandemic has left me burnt out and languishing as I wait for some form of normalcy to kick back in. And after watching multiple documentaries and dramedies made about this moment in history that we are all living through – I was not immediately keen on taking another one in, even if it was based on a fictional event that was filmed well before anyone had ever heard of COVID-19.
How could I possibly get any enjoyment out of something that hits so close to home?
Perhaps Hartigan expected this line of thinking when he was putting the final edit together or he just went on instinct, as the pandemic at the heart of Little Fish is merely the catalyst that sets events into motion – and is thankfully not the focal piece of the entire film. So that put any worries I had about the film to bed quite quickly. The science fiction elements (or at least, what used to be passed off as science fiction) are also quite minimal, sprinkled throughout Little Fish as a means of explaining the dire situation Emma and Jude find themselves in. They up the stakes and desperation in some scenes, but again, are not the focal point of the film.
Instead, what Little Fish is much more interested in is the deconstruction and reconstruction of this young couple’s relationship and all of the memories that go with it. We spend the majority of the film in flashback mode as Emma quizzes Jude on how they came together as a couple, frequently repeating phrases and meaningful events. We get frequent focus on Emma’s fragmented memories as well, showing us just how easy it is to forget or revise how we remember certain moments in our lives. It often made me pause to reflect on my own memories of my relationship with my wife and the differences in how we remember things. Writer Mattson Tomlin (whose next writing gig is Matt Reeves’ highly anticipated take on The Batman) does not go increasingly deep here so much as he uses the concept of memories to just examine and hone in on how important they are to our relationships and to our ways of life. With them, we are everything. And without them, we are merely shadows of our formers selves. It is heady stuff and while Little Fish is frequently slow moving, it has just the right amount of beauty and heart to keep us invested in these characters’ plight.
All of this would be meaningless of course without the powerful performances from Cooke and O’Connell. Both are wonderful in their roles, charting the highs and lows of their relationship together and with this disease. The intimacy each one brings to their character is authentic and moving, giving us just the right amount of introspection needed to make them fully realized – and not just conduits to get across the headier ideas of the screenplay. While I have been a fan of Cooke’s work since the Bates Motel TV series, I have never quite warmed up to O’Connell. But watching him slowly succumb to losing his memories is truly bittersweet, and I find myself wanting to seek out more of his work. Cooke is even better (and gets to use her real life accent for once!), delivering the most emotional and devastating beats in the film. I held onto every tragic word, and hope that she continues her rise as an in-demand actor once things get back to normal.
Little Fish is a beautifully devastating picture that is just as tragic as it is moving. It tells a story that so many of us can emphasize with and understand, highlighting just how precious and fleeting our memories can be. While I was initially put off by the idea of the film taking place during a pandemic, the ideas it expresses more than makes up for any fears and doubts I had, as do the powerhouse performances from Cooke and O’Connell. Their work here is spectacular and unmissable. If you are looking for a love story that says so much more than any atypical romance, look no further than Little Fish.
Little Fish is streaming on IFC Films Unlimited now.