Review: ‘Little Fish’ (2021), starring Olivia Cooke and Jack O’Connell

March 23, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jack O’Connell and Olivia Cooke in “Little Fish” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Little Fish” (2021) 

Directed by Chad Hartigan

Culture Representation: Taking place in Seattle from 2020 to 2022, the sci-fi drama “Little Fish” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Latinos and African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A British woman and her American husband struggle with fear and health issues during a global pandemic of the fictional disease Neuroinflammatory Affliction (NIA).

Culture Audience: “Little Fish” will appeal primarily to people interested in well-acted apocalyptic dramas that have romance and surprises.

Olivia Cooke and Jack O’Connell in “Little Fish” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Little Fish” is the type of plot-puzzle drama that appears to be straightforward in its intentions but turns out to be quite different from what was initially presented. The movie succeeds largely because of commendable acting from Olivia Cooke and Jack O’Connell, who play a newlywed couple struggling with a health crisis when one of them becomes afflicted with the fictional disease Neuroinflammatory Affliction (NIA) during a global pandemic. Because the movie takes place primarily in 2022, with flashbacks to previous years, the parallels are eerily similar to the real-life COVID-19 pandemic, although “Little Fish” was written and filmed before the COVID-19 pandemic existed.

Written by Mattson Tomlin (who adapted the screenplay from Aja Gabel’s short story) and directed by Chad Hartigan, “Little Fish” is told from the point of view of a lively Brit named Emma (played by Cooke), who works as a veterinary technician in Seattle. The movie’s tone is fraught with anxiety because Emma starts to see signs that her worst fears are coming true: The two people she loves the most have become afflicted with NIA, a viral disease that causes dementia.

The movie is a series of scenes in non-chronological order, with the “present day” scenes taking place in 2022. Emma gives voiceover narration during much of the story, and there are many scenes where she is articulating her memories so that she can write them down for herself and her American husband Jude (played by O’Connell), a photographer who is slowly showing signs of having NIA. It’s an activity that she does with a heavy heart because she knows it might be a matter of time before Jude will forget who she is and everything about their relationship.

In addition, Emma’s mother, who lives in England, is also showing signs of NIA. Emma’s mother (whose name is not revealed) is never seen in the movie, but her voice is heard when Emma speaks to her on the phone or leaves a voice mail message for her. Emily Stott is the voice of Emma’s mother in the movie.

In the world of “Little Fish,” NIA does not have a vaccine or cure. And there doesn’t seem to be much knowledge about how it is spread, although people occasionally wear masks as a precaution. Because a lot of the movie takes place in flashbacks, viewers see in bits and pieces how Emma and Jude met and how their relationship evolved.

Emma and Jude met while she was sitting by herself on a deserted beach. She sees a dog nearby and asks the man walking near her if the dog is his. He says no. The way that Emma and Jude look at each other, there’s an obvious attraction. Emma is talkative, while Jude is a little bit more emotionally reserved.

Jude has a camera with him and asks if he can take her picture. She obliges, they talk, flirt a little, and they exchange numbers. There’s only one problem. Emma already has a boyfriend, but she doesn’t tell Jude that the first time that they meet.

Shortly after Jude and Emma meet each other at the beach, Emma is at a Halloween costume party. She’s dressed as Claude Bourgelat, the French doctor who was considered a pioneer of veterinary medicine in the 1700s. Emma looks bored at the party, and her boyfriend Tim (played by David Lennon), senses that she’s become emotionally distant. However, Emma insists that everything is just fine.

While at the party, Emma gets a call from Jude, who asks her to come over to his place because he’s feeling kind of lonely at his apartment. Emma doesn’t hesitate, so she ditches the Halloween party and goes to Jude’s place. Once he sees her, he immediately guesses that she’s dressed as Claude Bourgelat. It’s one of many indications of why Emma fell for Jude so quickly.

Jude and Emma then head to a nightclub, where she tells him that she has a boyfriend named Tim. When Jude asks Emma if she loves her boyfriend, she says no. Jude asks Emma why she’s with this boyfriend if she doesn’t love him. Emma tells Jude that it’s complicated. More than once Jude gets Tim’s name wrong (Jude calls him Tom), which could be a mental block or a deliberate attempt to show Emma that he’s so unconcerned about Tim that he can’t be bothered to remember Tim’s name.

While hanging out at the nightclub together, Jude and Emma’s attraction to each other continues to grow. They share a similar sense of humor, such as pointing out people in their sight and trying to guess what these people’s stories are. The movie doesn’t delve too much into Jude’s family background, but it’s implied he’s on how own, while Emma (who has a working-class northern England accent) only has her mother has her closest living relative.

During their flirtatious conversation at the nightclub, Jude asks Emma if she can kiss her. She says no because she has a boyfriend. Not long afterward, Emma says she has to leave, and then she surprises Jude by giving him a romantic kiss on the mouth.

Needless to say, Emma’s relationship with Tim doesn’t last. Jude and Emma’s romance quickly heats up, they end up moving in together, and then they get married. Emma mentions in the movie that their wedding was on October 14, 2021, which means that they were married for a year or less when Jude began showing signs of having NIA.

At first, Jude’s forgetfulness is about little things. For example, Emma and Jude have a dog named Blue. One day while riding together on a bus, Emma says it would be great if they could adopt another dog as a companion for Blue. Jude says no because they don’t have room in their apartment. They get into a minor argument about it, but Jude is firm in saying it’s not a good time for them to get a second dog.

But then, on another day not long after that argument, Jude mentions to Emma that they should think about adopting a second dog. Emma is shocked and reminds Jude that this has been an ongoing disagreement with them, with Jude being the one who was against the idea of getting a second dog. Jude tells Emma that he honestly can’t remember them disagreeing about this issue.

Emma and Jude never do get a second dog, because they have much the more pressing matter of how to deal with Jude’s disappearing memory. Jude shows other signs that his memory is slipping. He forgets where he lives and doesn’t think about looking at his driver’s license to get his home address. On another occasion, he’s very late for an important job to take photos of a wedding. And speaking of weddings, there’s a pivotal scene where Jude and Emma have very different memories of their wedding day.

While all of this is going on, Emma confides to her mother about her suspicions that Jude might have NIA. But to Emma’s horror, her mother starts to forget names and experiences too. And then, Emma gets a phone call from England and finds out how much her mother’s health is deteriorating. Emma has to decide if she should go to England to try to help her mother (who apparently has no other relatives to turn to) or stay in the U.S. to help Jude.

Emma and Jude’s closest friends are a couple named Ben Richards (played by Raúl Castillo) and Samantha (played by Soko), an alternative rock duo who are musical partners and love partners. Ben plays guitar and Samantha is the singer. Ben and Samantha knew Jude first, because Jude used to go on tour with them as the duo’s photographer.

As Jude reveals later in the story, during their touring days, Jude and Samantha got caught up in partying too much with alcohol and drugs, and they decided to “dry out” in Seattle, where Samantha’s parents live. By the time Jude met Emma, he had been clean and sober for a few years. In flashbacks, Samantha and Ben are shown to have a loving and harmonious relationship.

Unfortunately, things change when Ben’s mental state does downhill because he has NIA. At first, Ben’s forgetfulness shows up as not remembering the musical notes of his guitar strings, so Jude comes up with an idea to tattoo this information on Ben’s arms. But then, Ben’s memory loss results in a very disturbing incident that has Samantha questioning if she should continue to be in a relationship with Ben. And the dark turn in Samantha and Ben’s relationship has Emma worrying about how she and Jude need to prepare in case something similar happens to them.

Shortly after Jude began losing his memory, it’s in the news that the government is doing a clinical trial for a possible NIA vaccine. The clinical trial is open to people who show NIA symptoms. Emma immediately encourages Jude to apply for this clinical trial, but he’s reluctant, because he’s still somewhat in denial that he has NIA. How this issue is resolved is one of the turning points in the movie. There are a few scenes that also show how desperate people can become when they think there’s a chance that they or their loved ones have a chance to be cured of this terrible disease.

The heart of “Little Fish” is in the scenes that show Jude and Emma’s romance. They have a relationship that’s very realistic, such as an ease with one another in how they live as a couple, share emotional intimacy, and even how they handle disagreements. Despite their occasional conflicts, Emma and Jude are very much in love and committed to each other. And as NIA starts to take over their lives, the decisions they make are a direct result of their fear of losing each other.

The movie is titled “Little Fish” because of a scene in the movie where Jude proposes marriage to Emma. They are at a fish aquarium store when he pops the question, and she enthusiastically says yes. However, Jude tells her that he doesn’t have an engagement ring.

Emma is so happy that she doesn’t mind. She replies, “Then buy me a fish.” Later, Emma and Jude get matching tattoos of little fish on their respective right ankles to commemorate this special day. It should come as no surprise that there’s a scene in the movie where these tattoos are a way to see how much Jude remembers about his relationship with Emma.

“Little Fish” can be described as a sci-fi romantic drama, but there are parts of the movie that have the qualities of being an apocalyptic horror movie without all the bombastic “run for your lives” scenes that are usually in these types of apocalyptic movies. In “Little Fish,” the NIA horror sneaks up on people but shows up in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

In one of the flashback scenes, Emma is at her job and signs paperwork for a stray dog that is turned in by a city employee named Frank (played by Toby Hargrave), who works for the city’s animal control department. Emma is a little surprised that Frank can’t remember her name. Observant viewers will not be surprised later in the movie when another driver named Annie (played by Angela Moore) shows up and tells Emma that she’s Frank’s replacement because he stopped showing up for work. The implication is that Frank has NIA.

The horror of NIA is exemplified in real life-or-death situations. While taking a tourist-type boat ride to get their mind off of their troubles, Emma and Jude witness a woman run hysterically toward them because the woman doesn’t remember her husband and thinks he’s a stranger trying to kidnap her. The woman on the boat is so distraught that she does something desperate and tragic.

And there are also missing-person flyers that start to become more prevalent as the NIA pandemic worsens. That’s because the disease has spread at such a rate that more people forget who they are, wander off, and go missing. It’s something that Emma fears might happen to Jack, her mother, and other people she know, including herself.

Cooke and O’Connell (who are both British in real life) have the type of natural chemistry with each other that give their performances considerable authenticity. Because Jude and Emma are a very believable couple, audiences will be rooting for Jude and Emma to somehow make it through this crisis against all odds. “Little Fish” director Hartigan and film editor Josh Crockett skillfully weave the story in such a way that viewers of “Little Fish” will be engrossed in putting all the flashbacks together to find out who Jude and Emma are. What makes this movie memorable is how these perceptions compare from the beginning of the movie to the end of the movie.

IFC Films released “Little Fish” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on February 5, 2021.