Little Fish Review: An emotionally powerful trip into love and memory loss
The latest from IFC Films and director Chad Hartigan, Little Fish, deals with grief and memory loss through a harrowing love story placed in the center of a global viral outbreak.
Just from that quick opening, it’s easy to guess that Little Fish hits on some incredibly relevant feels. However, instead of COVID-19, the film’s main viral outbreak, called NIA, is one that makes people lose their memory. Sometimes in bits and pieces and other times people can forget who they are in an instance. It’s sort of like if Alzheimer’s could be spread to everyone – which is just horrifying to think about. In a similar vein to Spontaneous, the film doesn’t delve too deep into the virus’ lore – like how it spreads or how it generally affects the brain in a way that causes people to lose their memory. There’s not even a time where we really see how all of this started and we only get a couple loose mentions about how things have changed in terms of government involvement a few times. However, Little Fish really isn’t about the virus and rather focuses on how it’s affected people and especially the relationship between married couple Emma (Olivia Cooke) and Jude (Jack O’Connell).
Before the virus even affects Emma and Jude, Hartigan wrecks your heart with how he depicts this world that’s slowly losing its memory. It’s always seeing the things you do everyday or that seem like common knowledge be so heavily impacted that rocks you the most. One second things like knowing how to drive, remembering someone’s name, or remembering which house you live in are just common knowledge and the next, they’re totally wiped leaving you completely lost. Hartigan displays that horrifying vision in an incredibly engrossing way that really eats at you.
There’re car accidents that occur because people suddenly forget everything in the middle of driving, people just lost in the street aimlessly walking with no memory of anything, and people that are just straight up missing and are put on a government missing person list that’s just growing by the day. It’s even more disheartening to see how Emma has to put down more and more dogs each day at her job since more owners forget to close their gates and messages scribbled on city walls for people wishing their lost loved ones would come home. Hartigan keeps things relatively bleak and creates a world that’s literally deteriorating as people begin to lose themselves. Even the news of a possible cure just creates more chaos as people go to dire and desperate lengths to get the procedure. It’s a compelling depiction of a viral outbreak that really rocks you to your core and has a deep personal impact.
However, there’s one sort of hopeful element in the world that Hartigan and writer Mattson Tomlin have created based on the short story of the same name by Aja Gabel – the relationship between Emma and Jude. There’s such a genuine sweetness to their relationship that signifies how much they care for one another and the chemistry between Cooke and O’Connell is the peak of the heartwarming romance. Through some great flashback we get some really touching moments of their relationship that show how light-hearted and down to Earth they can be, and it creates this emotional connection that has you hooked right from the start. All of this is what makes Jude eventually becoming afflicted with the virus early on in the film so damaging, but impactful in a surprisingly positive way.
Emma and Jude’s relationship be affected by this virus is one of the toughest things to watch as the grief that consumes them really hits you. There’s a sequence where Emma asks Jude to remember certain events in their life together that’s both touching and deeply sad with the visuals Hartigan uses to show how Jude’s memory is fading and it’s easily one of the big emotional blows this movie dishes out. Even with the film having a mostly bleak feel to it that feels right given the situation, the emotional highs it offers through Emma and Jude’s romance give the film a hopefully romantic feeling of warmth. The way they fight for the memory of the relationship alive is genuinely endearing and the flashbacks remind you why you’re right behind them in wanting their love not to get lost in Jude’s fading memory. Even amongst the grief felt between Emma feeling like her whole life is fading from her as her mother also succumbs to the virus and Jude slowly losing his memory, there’s deep love for one another always manages to bleed through. It’s easily the greatest emotional strength this film brings, and it’s immensely elevated by the performances of Cooke and O’Connell as well as the unbelievably amazing score from Keegan DeWitt. There’s also an incredible moment of professing from Jude as well as the film’s ending that embody the film’s message of feelings not being lost with the memories that really sticks with you and leaves a deep impact.
Little Fish is a big burst of emotion with a powerful romance story built within deteriorating world that completely rocks you to your core. Cooke and O’Connell, two woefully under-recognized talents, have never been better and Hartigan creates an emotionally impactful look at grief and love in a world not too different from where we are now. It’s the first absolute must-see of 2021.