LITTLE FISH rewards those who pay attention
LITTLE FISH (2021)
The concept of a person forgetting everyone and everything they hold dear shouldn’t be plausible, but because of degenerative diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s it unfortunately is. While those diseases mostly emerge in the minds of the elderly, could you imagine if everyone was susceptible? What if it manifested itself as a virus? How far would you go for a cure, let alone to preserve the memories of a life barely lived? These are some of the ideas explored beneath the surface of Chad Hartigan’s Little Fish.
Now, there’s an art to telling a film out of order. While Hartigan doesn’t quite master it here, I think he comes pretty close. I don’t think the film would work as well as it does if it wasn’t for its blatant nonlinear narrative. While there is an argument to be had that the script deserves a lot of the credit for that decision, it’s ultimately Hartigan’s ability to bring that vision to life that earns my admiration. It’s not that he just scrambles the events of our characters’ lives around, he simultaneously simulates just how unreliable the memory can be. For instance, the audience constantly revisits key moments in our protagonists’ relationship over the course of the film. However, over time, small details from those moments change. As a result, it becomes just as hard for the audience to reconstruct the original memory as our characters.
Many will probably draw several comparisons between this film and Nolan’s Memento - and that’s not without good reason; the film pays homage to it in several ways. Personally, the way the film plays out as a whole reminded me more of Danny Boyle’s Trance.
Without giving too much away, if you haven’t seen it, Trance revolves around a man who can’t remember where he stashed a priceless painting after assisting in a heist. A pretty simple premise, right? But the way in which it’s told elevates the story and transforms it into an extremely emotional experience. To date, it’s the only film I’ve seen where the order of the scenes doesn’t matter. Scramble any shot, scene, or sequence in any order and you’d still get the same story. I feel the same way about Little Fish. Granted, it may be a little hard to follow at times, but it’s ultimate impact is undeniable.
As mentioned earlier, the film takes place during a (very coincidental) pandemic where this mysterious virus causes people of all ages to lose their memories. At the heart of the story are Emma and Jude, a madly in-love married couple struggling with the possibility that at any point in time one of them can get sick and forget the other, until one of them does (spoiler alert, it’s the one with the female name).
Now, I think the film’s exploration of the power of a memory is beautiful. Most people like to be defined by their accomplishments and their experiences, but the film challenges that idea by saying that we’re really nothing without our memories.
Once again, it does borrow from Memento a lot. For instance, to remember things, many characters get tattoos on themselves. One of our main characters is also conveniently a photographer, so photos also act as important memory devices throughout. While I liked the way those things were implemented though, I feel like there are so many other ways to commit things to memory. In fact, one of the characters tries to preserve their memories by keeping a journal. The film just really leans on the photos and tattoos so heavily - the title is even a reference to a tattoo - that it ends up feeling like an immodest homage to the Nolan classic.
ACTING | CHARACTERS | DIALOGUE:
Olivia Cooke and Jack O’Connell play Emma and Jude, respectively, and here they only solidify their status as two of the best (and underrated) working actors today. Cooke, who is still getting praise for her supporting role in last year’s Sound of Metal, is both the film’s narrator and emotional core. Despite the film revolving around the couple, the audience mostly sees everything through her eyes. While it may sound trivial, the thing I loved the most about her performance is that she doesn’t mask her accent. Nearly every mainstream role she’s had until now has forced her to hide it, but the freedom she’s given here to be an English woman playing an English woman evokes a real sense of authenticity from her.
Interestingly enough, O’Connell, who’s also English, is the one who has to mask his accent as an American character. His accent is irrelevant though because he communicates best through his physical expressions. So much of the heartbreak that the audience feels is a direct result of Jude’s experience and reaction to the virus.
Communication aside, the chemistry that the two have together is what really sells their love. Not once is their love for each other in question. Not once is there an ounce of hatred between the two. As the world around them crumbles, they know that all they have is each other and they’re willing to do whatever it takes to come out at the other end with both their hearts and minds intact.
VISUAL EFFECTS | MAKEUP | DESIGN:
Of all the film’s technological aspects, I have to applaud the production design. While not extravagant, it’s very effective, particularly during the aforementioned flashbacks of Emma and Jude’s relationship. With each recollection, the colors and blocking constantly change even as the physical sets remain the same. There’s this one memory in a nightclub that becomes increasingly interesting because of how subtly it changes every time we revisit it. It’s that selective continuity that not only helps the audience empathize with our characters’ pain, but also once again stays true to just how unreliable memories can be.
MUSIC | SCORE | SOUND DESIGN:
Now, I know the purpose of a score is to punctuate the actions and words of characters in a film, but there’s something about Keegan DeWitt’s music here that especially elevates Emma and Judd’s journey. Not once does his score make you want to wallow in sadness. Instead, it’ll make you understand the seriousness of their situation while giving you hope that things’ll get better. The film’s final few minutes solidify this.
While it isn’t always an easy film to process, Little Fish rewards those who pay attention with important lessons about time, life, and love . Nothing lasts forever, including our memories, but if we’re lucky enough to find someone to share them with, while we’re here, nothing else matters.