“Little Fish” Review: Love and Memory Loss in the Time of a Pandemic

With COVID-19 still raging around the world, a melancholy love story about a 2021 viral pandemic that ravages people’s relationships, romances and sense of self is perhaps not the easiest sell at the moment. Such timeliness proves both a blessing and a curse for “Little Fish,” writer-director Chad Hartigan’s heartfelt tale about a couple struggling with a global epidemic of memory loss. A portrait of life’s impermanence, it’s a bittersweet small-scale saga whose occasional sluggishness is offset by its sensitivity, although its theatrical and VOD prospects may be undercut by the fact that, in this present environment, its thematic concerns hit quite close to home.

Written by Mattson Tomlin (based on a short story by Aja Gabel), Hartigan’s followup to “Morris From America” fixates on the budding amour between veterinarian Emma (Olivia Cooke) and photographer Jude (Jack O’Connell). Their meet-cute occurs against the backdrop of a spreading disease known as NIA (Neuroinflammatory Affliction) which, without warning and at varying speeds, robs the young and the old of their memories. With no cure in immediate sight, societal collapse escalates quickly. Yet such chaos is largely confined to the periphery (a random military vehicle here, a riot at a medical clinic there) as the film glides through scattered flashes of Jude and Emma’s history together — admiring their wedding rings in a car, laughing in a forest, kissing as they hold sparklers at night — all of them swirling around a scene in which they first connect at a Halloween party.

In tone and style, “Little Fish” (which was set to premiere at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival) feels indebted to emo-sci-fi predecessors such as “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Never Let Me Go.” Hartigan’s expressionistic closeups and patient, manicured compositions are coated in a patina of muted, overcast magic-hour hues, and set to plaintive orchestral strings. Those aesthetics amplify the material’s overarching atmosphere of ephemerality — of identity, togetherness and fond remembrances slipping through one’s fingers — and so too does Tomlin’s scripting, which routinely frames incidents both big and small as examples of people’s desire to cling to that which will inevitably fade away. Jack’s shutterbug profession further speaks to that basic human impulse, and his photographs eventually factor into the plot proper, once his own mind begins exhibiting signs of deterioration.

“Little Fish” opens at what is obviously its end, and its subsequent leaping backward and forward in time conveys the intertwined psychological and emotional ties that bind us to each other (and ourselves). It also, unfortunately, sometimes grinds the proceedings to a light halt. Especially in its middle passages, Emma and Jack’s lovey-dovey episodes lack urgency, and even once calamity strikes close to home, their sadness and confusion takes precedence over actual drama.

The plight of friends Sam (Soko) and Ben (Raúl Castillo), the latter of whom has NIA, affords a window onto the painful, bewildering erasure brought on by the disease, as well as a preview of what’s in store for the protagonists. But it doesn’t deepen our understanding of the toll wrought by this affliction, since that’s ably established early on, and no larger view of how society is coping with this destructive plague is presented.

Nonetheless, Hartigan’s moody evocation of Emma and Jack’s love — and the way in which it, like so much else, is predicated on knowledge of the past – casts a moving spell. In that endeavor, he’s aided by a dynamic editorial structure (via Josh Crockett), as well as by touching performances from his leads, whose easygoing and affectless rapport is the foundation upon which the film’s mounting sorrow is built. Gracefully underplaying their respective roles, Cooke and O’Connell locate their characters’ tragedy in the minutia of daily conjoined life, be it a piggyback ride or a hand caressing the back of a head. In doing so, they imbue this indie with its lasting poignancy.

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