Little Fish, 2021.
Written and Directed by Chad Hartigan.
Starring Olivia Cooke, Jack O’Connell, Raúl Castillo, SoKo, and David Lennon.
A couple fights to hold their relationship together as a memory loss virus spreads and threatens to erase the history of their love and courtship.
What is love? No, that’s not a cue to start singing the infamous song, but the admirable thematic core of writer and director Chad Hartigan’s Little Fish. There’s a virus affecting a big population of the world, causing gradual memory loss at speeds that randomly vary from individual to individual. Meanwhile, the actual story is smaller in scope focusing on newlyweds Emma and Jude (Olivia Cooke and Jack O’Connell, a duo containing strong chemistry turning in devastating work, with this possibly being the latter’s best work to date) navigating the complications of Jude contracting the virus.
Little Fish is also not a direct parallel to our current global health crisis and was not put into production at any time during the lockdown, which feels necessary to point out considering the movie is all the better for limiting that to world-building, to instead use its unique twist on dementia to pose profound thoughts about romance. Besides, there’s a scene here where people are rioting because they want and can’t get a potential cure that has not been mass-manufactured yet, whereas in the real world we have bozos and their protesting shutting down vaccine distribution sites.
Thankfully, Emma and Jude are sane and likable people that are allowed to have flaws; he once struggled with cocaine abuse as part of a band and she came dangerously close to cheating on her current partner to be with him. Chad Hartigan is not creating an unrealistic perfect couple (an early scene sees them arguing about whether or not to rescue a dog about to be put down at the animal clinic Emma works at) but also one free from toxicity. In the end, it makes the mental pain each of them goes through (him from losing his memories and her from not giving up and choosing to support no matter how difficult things get) that much more grounded and worth emotionally investing in.
There’s also some added terror of what’s to come as Jude’s best friend and former bandmate Ben (Raúl Castillo) has been hit hard with the virus to the point where he doesn’t recognize his wife Samantha (SoKo) without carrying around photographs or some Memento inspired tattoos. On top of that, there’s a possibility that this trial testing for a cure might make things worse such as blinding or physically disabling Jude (the process involves some unpleasant and painful work on the brain). As a disabled person, it’s an exchange that actually got me thinking in reverse; would I take a slow stream of memory loss for being able to walk? A disability doesn’t define a person, but it’s certainly worth discussing and an impactful, stressful moment of heavy decision-making.
With all that in mind and as Jude slowly starts to forget the name of their dog or important days such as his wedding (there’s an emotionally arresting scene where they walk through it together trying to see how much of it he does remember), they ponder the beautiful idea that maybe love is not about memories or remembering smaller details. Above all else, love is something to be felt and that feeling is what really needs to be held onto. The film also makes the most of those memories, often using flashbacks to also play around with different variations simultaneously or later on.
Emma also has to grapple with her mother living in another country also coming down with the disease, but understandably afraid to come through on visiting her as planned for fear of what else could go wrong with Jude. It’s an unfortunate dilemma that somewhat feels like an afterthought in the script. There is also a scene that would be scary and tense if it was easier to buy into one character going through with something so dangerous and irresponsible but simply feels like it’s from a different movie entirely. For as much as there is to appreciate about Little Fish, it does feel as if Chad Hartigan is always on the cusp of something deeper unable to fully crack through beyond suggestions about the meaning of love, as much as I am on board with that sentiment, but the performances are heart-wrenching and the somber music from Keegan DeWitt accentuates that hurt.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com