Chad Hartigan’s “Little Fish” – A Tender Love Story During Challenging Times

Jack O’Connell as ‘Jude’ and Olivia Cooke as his wife ‘Emma’, in Chad Hartigan’s LITTLE FISH, a tale of love during a pandemic. Photo: Courtesy of IFC Films
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At the Movies With…

Lady Beverly Cohn

Editor-at-Large Worldwide

They say that timing is one of the keys to success in any given industry or endeavor or even in a relationship.   In view of the fact that the world is struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic, in the case of LITTLE FISH, the release timing couldn’t be more ill-conceived.  Thus, I gave a great deal of thought before deciding to review this motion picture. The reason?  Set some time in the future, this fascinating film, screenplay by Mattson Tomlin, based on a short story by Aja Gabel, is brilliantly directed by Chad Hartigan who, working in concert with cinematographer Sean McElwee, meticulously captures the moment-to-moment exploration of a different pandemic and the accompanying impact on one particular couple.  An apocalypse can be instantaneous with rapid, violent manifestations, but in contrast, LITTLE FISH is the story of a slow-moving, quiet cataclysm affecting couples who wake up not knowing each other, mothers who forget to pick up their children from school, or planes that are grounded for fear the pilots will forget how to land their aircraft.  Beyond the apocalyptic aspect, this is basically a love story taking place during a world-wide pandemic.

Jude’ (Jack O’Connell) and ‘Emma’ (Olivia Cooke) in their happier days. 
Photo:   Courtesy of IFC Films

Director Hartigan elicited two extraordinary performances from Olivia Cooke, who plays Emma, and Jack O’Connell, who plays her husband Jude.  Through the cinematic voice-over device, Emma poignantly tells the story of their relationship, which begins with her holding her dog and a man, who will eventually become her husband, asking “Is that your dog?” A question that is asked again at a later time.  Through a series of flashbacks, their story is unraveled. Sometimes when this method is used, instead of clarification, it causes confusion and wondering where the heck you are in the narrative.  In this case, however, I’ve seldom seen that device used more efficiently and with crystal clear clarity.  You never have to guess where you are as the non-linear timeline unfolds.  Emma is a veterinary technician and Jude is a photographer shooting rock shows and weddings.  He is rarely without a camera in his hand, documenting ordinary, everyday occurrences.   Bear in the mind the story zig zags back and forth from the presence to the past.  Now they are married and have a rescue dog named Blue.  On a bus one day, Emma hears loud speakers asking about lost people and we slowly begin to understand that there is something amiss with memories.  People are clamoring to be part of a clinical trial that hopefully will come up with a cure for an escalating disorder called Neuroinflammatory Affliction (NIA), a rapidly downward spiraling Alzheimer’s-like condition causing one’s memory to vanish – ranging from weeks or months or sometimes instantly.  It’s easy to take notice that Jude, whose memory is beginning to falter, has plastered the walls of their apartment with a variety of photographs serving as documentation of people, places, and experiences.  As luck would have it, Jude is selected to sign up to participate in an upcoming trial, which involves invasive brain surgery.  He is seated inside a clinic where everyone is wearing a mask.  However, I should point out that unlike the contagious COVID-19, the mythical NIA is not transmissible.  Jude tries to fill out the questionnaire, but there are sections he cannot answer.  In discussing the possible dangerous side effects with Emma, he becomes more and more reluctant to have the procedure.  However, as it turns out, he is ineligible for the pilot program because traces of drugs were found in his system.  He swears that he’s been clean for five years and doesn’t remember taking any drugs.  To memorialize her husband’s  journey into darkness, Emma makes daily entries in her journal, keeping track of his behavioral changes and tries to joggle his memory by asking questions about their relationship.   She asks Jude if there’s one thing that stands out in his memory, and he slowly answers that he remembers being in a pet store and buying a fish.  The fog temporarily lifts and he recalls that he proposed to her in a pet store, apologizing that he didn’t have an engagement ring.  “Buy me a fish instead,” and so his did.  Jude’s best friend is Ben, a successful musician wonderfully played by Raúl Castillo.  He had been touring around the country but unfortunately, he is smack in the middle of exhibiting the tell-tale, sometimes violent symptoms of the disease, which scares his wife Samantha or Sam, compassionately played by Soko.  Jude takes his friendto a tattoo parlor and has Ben’s into his chest. In any case, as his friend’s condition worsens so does Jude’s.  Emma writes in her journal, “He’s losing pieces of himself.”  Holding a kitchen knife in a threatening manner, Emma is faced with her husband potentially stabbing her. “The man I was supposed to love forever, just tried to stab me.” But she doesn’t give up on him.  Trying to bring back his memory, she quizzes him daily, “Where did we meet?  When did we get married?  Was it in a church?  What’s the name of our dog? He has a vague recollection of kissing her on the steps of a church.  Slowly, more and more of his memories are slipping away.  In an act of desperation, Emma decides to use one of the drugs used on dogs to see if she can bring back his vanishing life.  Although the outcome is questionable, in a moment of lucidity, “Before I’m all gone,” he tells her, “You are the love of my life.”  There are further unexpected twists which would fall under “spoiler,” so I shall not reveal the other surprising elements.  Although this is movie-making at its finest, the story line might be difficult for people who have family members who are actually dealing with a progressive disease.  The decision to see or not to see is yours dear reader.

‘Emma’ (Olivia Cooke) points out the house in which she lives with her husband ‘Jude’ (Jack O’ Connell).
Photo:   Courtesy of IFC Films – An IFC Films

Distributor:  IFC FILMS

Release Date:  Current

Where: Digital and VOD Platforms & Select Theatres

Language:  English

Genre:  apocalyptic sci fi, drama, thriller, romance

Running Time:  101 Minutes

Unrated