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.

Review: ‘Sound of Metal,’ starring Riz Ahmed and Olivia Cooke

November 20, 2020

by Carla Hay

Riz Ahmed in “Sound of Metal” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

“Sound of Metal”

Directed by Darius Marder

Some language in French with captions

Culture Representation: Taking place in the various parts of United States, the dramatic film “Sound of Metal” features a predominantly white cast (with some Asians, African Americans and Latinos) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A drummer in an industrial rock band loses his hearing and reluctantly moves into a group home for deaf people while secretly planning to break the home’s rules of getting surgery to try to regain his sense of hearing.

Culture Audience: “Sound of Metal” will appeal primarily to people who like well-acted dramas about people dealing with physical and emotional challenges.

Pictured clockwise from left to right: Paul Raci, Riz Ahmed and Olivia Cooke in “Sound of Metal” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

The absorbing and riveting drama “Sound of Metal” takes viewers on a topsy-turvy journey showing what it’s like to become deaf and how it completely alters the course of someone’s life. The movie’s outstanding sound editing and sound mixing completely immerse viewers into the experience of going between the world of people who have all of their hearing abilities and the world of people who are hearing-impaired. These two worlds are inhabited by the same person in “Sound of Metal,” which has superb acting from the cast members, who are from the hearing and deaf communities. It’s the type of movie that will have an impact on anyone who watches it.

Directed by Darius Marder, who co-wrote the screenplay with his brother Abraham Marder, “Sound of Metal” has frequent captions that appear on screen to describe background noises, as if the filmmakers were aware that many hearing-impaired people would be watching this movie. According to “The Sound of Metal” production notes, Darius Marder conceived the movie’s sound, while sound designer Nicolas Becker carried out what Darius Marder had in mind. There is no other movie released in 2020 that has more memorable, Oscar-worthy sound techniques than “Sound of Metal.”

The central character of the story is Ruben Stone, a heavily tattooed drummer for an alternative rock duo called Blackgammon, whose music is best described as post-industrial heavy metal. Blackgammon is self-financed and releases music independently. The music isn’t about melody but about conveying gloomy angst with loud, screeching guitar riffs and lots of amplifier feedback.

By any standard, Blackgammon’s music is hard on the ears. And it seems that Ruben has been playing this music without earplugs for years. Even when he starts to lose his hearing, he doesn’t wear earplugs. It’s later revealed in the story that Ruben is a recovering drug addict (heroin was his drug of choice) who’s been sober for the past four years.

Ruben’s live-in girlfriend Louise Berger (played by Olivia Cooke), nicknamed Lou and sometimes called Lulu by Ruben, is the lead singer/guitarist of Blackgammon. Lou is in her mid-to-late-20s and is about 10 years younger than Ruben. They live together in an Airstream RV, which also doubles as their tour bus. Ruben owns the RV and he does the driving. It’s unclear how long Ruben and Lou have been together as a couple or as band members. And it’s also not revealed how Lou and Ruben met, but it’s implied in the story that it’s been at least two years since they’ve been in each other’s lives.

Ruben and Lou have an easygoing relationship that suggests that they became friends first before they became lovers. He clearly adores her and dotes on her, because he’s the type of boyfriend who will make breakfast for her. Lou is more of the scheduler and planner in the relationship. She says later in the movie that she’s the band’s manager. And there are signs that Ruben is more of a “dreamer,” while Lou is more of a “realist.”

Later in the movie, it’s revealed that Lou comes from a wealthy family. Her decision to become the lead singer of a very non-commercial band that plays seedy bars and nightclubs has put a strain on her relationship with her divorced father Richard Berger (played by Mathieu Amalric), who lives in his native France. Lou’s parents divorced when she was a child, and she was raised by her mother in America. Tragically, Lou’s mother committed suicide, but it’s not made clear in the movie at what age Lou was when this tragedy happened. It seems to have occurred when Lou was under the age of 18.

As for Ruben’s family background, he was raised by a single mother too, but he never knew his father. In one of the movie’s early scenes, Ruben and Lou are in their bus, and he tells her that he used to imagine that Jeff Goldblum was his long-lost father, because Ruben thinks that he looks a lot like Goldbum. Ruben comments that he’s a fan of Goldblum, but if it were possible for Goldblum to be his father, it “explains a lot because the dude’s fucking weird.” Lou says that she used to think about her funeral in math class when she was in school.

This scene demonstrates that Ruben and Lou both have offbeat senses of humor, which is part of their attraction to each other. And based on their family histories and some of the things that happen later in the story, it’s also clear that there’s a “lost soul” aspect to their personalities. They want someone to fill a void, and they both found each other at the right moment to be that person for the other one in the relationship.

But their relationship is about to be tested in a big way, when Ruben discovers that he’s losing his hearing. At first, he seems to be in denial about it and he doesn’t tell Lou. However, Ruben seeks medical treatment and does hearing tests to find out what the problem is. The diagnosis isn’t good. His right ear has only 28% hearing capacity, while his left ear has only 24% hearing capacity.

The doctor tells Ruben that he must eliminate all exposure to loud noises. And when Ruben asks if there is any way to get his hearing back, the doctor says that cochlea implant surgery are possible, but it’s not covered by health insurance. And the cost of the surgery is about $40,000 to $80,000, which is money that Ruben does not have.

Ruben decides to continue life as he knows it and refuses to think about his career as a musician being over. He also decides he’s going to find a way to get enough money for the ear surgery. One night, while Blackgammon is performing at a nightclub, Ruben’s hearing problems become too difficult for him to bear. He walks off of the stage in the middle of the performance. Lou follows him outside, and that’s when Ruben tells her that he’s going deaf and about the ear surgery that he wants to have.

Lou’s immediate reaction is to help Ruben as much as possible. They had plans to do a tour and record an album, but Lou wants to cancel those plans and put Ruben’s health first. Ruben vehemently disagrees (perhaps because he’s still in denial about how serious his hearing problem is) and they argue about it. However, Ruben agrees to accompany Lou to a sober-living group home for deaf people to get information about the home and see if he would like to live there.

The group home’s manager is a tough-but-tender recovering alcoholic named Joe (played by Paul Raci), who’s a Vietnam War veteran who became deaf when a bomb went off near him during the war. Joe is welcoming to Ruben and Lou, but he is very clear that he will enforce the house’s strict rules for the residents, who are not allowed to have visitors or communicate with anyone outside the home. (Residents’ cell phones are confiscated when they check into this home.)

Ruben seems somewhat open to living in this home until he hears about the house rules. He thanks Joe for his time but says that the living arrangements aren’t acceptable and he won’t be staying there. However, Lou gives Ruben no choice but to stay in the group home when she suddenly makes plans to go away and tells Ruben that she will end their relationship if he doesn’t live in the group home and get the help that he needs.

Ruben is stunned and heartsick about Lou’s decision, but he doesn’t want to lose her, so he agrees to the plan. (The scene where Ruben and Lou say goodbye before she leaves for the airport is one of the best scenes in the film.) Ruben immediately feels like an outsider in the group home because he’s the only one who doesn’t know sign language. He will eventually learn American Sign Language (ASL), but in the back of his mind he has three goals: (1) Graduate from the house program; (2) Reunite with Lou; and (3) Get enough money to pay for the ear surgery.

During his stay in the group home, Ruben learns a lot more than sign language. He learns that that he’s not the worthless human being that he believed he was for most of his life. Part of the house program includes interacting with deaf students who are about 7 to 9 years old. Ruben attends their sign-language classes, which are led by a pretty and friendly teacher named Diane (played by Lauren Ridloff), who is patient and kind when teaching all of her students. (Ridloff and the students in the movie are deaf in real life.)

Ruben eventually uses his skills as a musician to bond with the children. It should come as no surprise that he eventually leads a drumming class for the students, with Diane also participating. And in order for Ruben to get in touch with his feelings, Joe tells Ruben to write down as much as he can.

As for the other group residents, they and Ruben take a while to get to know each other. Ruben keeps mostly to himself, but he ends up developing a friendship of sorts with a young lesbian named Jenn (played by Chelsea Lee), who asks Ruben to tattoo a naked woman on one of her back shoulders. Lou secretly keeps tabs on what Lou is doing by using the computer in Joe’s office and looking at social media.

Ahmed gives a stunning performance in depicting Ruben’s emotional trials and tribulations. The movie goes back and forth in depicting the sounds of what people with full hearing capabilities can hear in contrast to the sounds (or lack thereof) that Ruben experiences as he gradually goes deaf. It’s a transformation that will give people with full hearing abilities a greater understanding of the terror and isolation that someone must feel over hearing loss.

There’s also an overwhelming sense of powerlessness from Ruben, who knows that what’s happening is beyond his control and will permanently change the way he experiences the world, how he can communicate with other people, and how other people communicate with him. And if you factor in that Ruben is struggling with addiction issues, the movie will leave viewers on edge in seeing if Ruben will relapse or not during this new health crisis in his life. And there’s also the question if Lou will want to stay in the relationship with Ruben.

What “Sound of Metal” thankfully does not do is present deafness as something that should warrant pity. And it’s a condition that does not doom people to being less than fully formed human beings. One of the best things about the movie is that it shows how that Ruben’s gradual hearing loss actually forces him to look deep inside of himself and come to terms with who he is and how much he wants this hearing loss to define or change him.

It’s not an easy process, and Ruben goes through a lot of turmoil during this emotional journey. And as difficult as it must be for anyone in the group home to be cut off from their loved ones and the outside world, it’s a rule that seems understandable in the sense that loved ones could intentionally or unintentionally bring distractions or other baggage in the self-healing process. However, Ruben has a rebellious streak and defies the rules by sneaking off to use Joe’s computer to maintain some kind of online connection with Lou.

Cooke’s portrayal of Lou is also admirable in the way she depicts how she is also deeply affected by Ruben’s hearing loss. Although Lou isn’t in most of the movie, her presence is felt throughout the story because she’s the catalyst and motivation for Ruben trying to find a positive and healthy way to adjust to his new life as a deaf person. The movie shows what happens to Ruben and Lou as a couple in their touching love story.

According to the production notes for “Sound of Metal,” the movie was inspired in part by director Darius Marder’s deaf paternal grandmother, as well his editing work on director Derek Cianfrance’s unfinished docudrama “Metalhead,” about a real-life husband-and-wife rock duo named Jucifer and the husband’s struggle with hearing loss. Darius Marder also consulted with numerous members of the deaf community (ASL instructor Jeremy Stone was a chief consultant) to ensure accuracy in the film. All of that authenticity and acute attention to detail shine through in the movie.

The sounds and the silence are almost like other characters in the film. Muffled or garbled sounds that signal Ruben’s aural deterioration can also weigh heavily on his emotions. The silence of deafness unforgivingly limits Ruben’s world with invisible barriers but also unexpectedly opens up his world to new possibilities. Ruben finds that he has to rely on other senses and pay more attention to his surroundings and his inner rhythms when he can no longer depend on his hearing. More than anything, “Sound of Metal” is a great example of how losing the ability to hear doesn’t make anyone less of a person. And sometimes the best thing to listen to is one’s own instinct and conscience.

Amazon Studios released “Sound of Metal” in select U.S. cinemas on November 20, 2020. The movie’s Amazon Prime Video premiere is on December 4, 2020.