British actor Olivia Cooke is having quite the recent few months, with the release of Irish independent film Pixie and the midst-of-awards-season Sound of Metal. Little Fish is a rare example of her getting to use her own Mancunian accent, even if it is set in Canada. She is teamed with fellow Brit Jack O’Connell (playing a North American) for a genre of film that is surely only going to increase (if Sundance 2021 is anything to go by). Dystopias, apocalyptic scenarios and bleak sci-fi (think Black Mirror) are very much in vogue at the moment. Mysterious environmental changes or, well, pandemics are starting to crop up more and more – surely a coping mechanism for what we’re currently going through. Your mood will certainly vary, in terms of how much exposure you want to have to these kinds of stories in your entertainment at the moment.
Little Fish reminds me of two slightly older films – Perfect Sense (2011) and Realive (2016) and with Black Mirror being now a decade old, it’s a reminder that these kinds of topics haven’t suddenly started cropping up in the last year. Little Fish tackles another subject which is also having a current ‘moment’ in cinema – memory loss – (with films such as The Father and Supernova examining characters with Alzheimer’s) but in this case, it can affect anyone of any age and can be devastatingly sudden – demonstrated by a fisherman forgetting how to operate his boat while out at sea and a pilot forgetting how to operate a plane during a flight.
Little Fish does feature some of the cliches of the 21st century indie romance and Cooke’s character Emma does veer into MPDG territory (we know she’s not like other girls because she wears a nerdy Halloween costume). There is also dreamy visuals, a voiceover and an electronic score from Keegan DeWitt (Hearts Beat Loud, Her Smell). But once Jude (O’Connell) starts exhibiting symptoms of NIA – Neuro Inflammatory Affliction (a mysterious condition that can cause either sudden or gradual memory loss), there is enough here that is interesting and distinct to keep you engaged. “Some people snap all at once, other people fade away…”
Much of the emotion comes from the couple’s best friends, Ben played by Raul Castillo (Looking, We the Animals) and Samantha played by Soko (Augustine, Her, Mayday). Ben has already succumbed to NIA, leading to terrifying and devastating consequences for the couple and giving Emma a taste of what is in store for her future with Jude. But Emma becomes determined that “that won’t be us” and starts testing Jude on their shared memories and making a wall of Post-its and Polaroids etc The scenes of mass panic, people clamouring for a cure and those seeking ways out may be too much right now for many people, understandably.
Despite being still in her twenties, Olivia Cooke has been demonstrating impressive acting chops for some time now, in the likes of The Quiet Ones, Me and Earl and The Dying Girl, The Limehouse Golem, Thoroughbreds and playing Becky Sharp in a Vanity Fair miniseries. She very much carries and centres Little Fish, guiding us through the story with her narration and reacting to the world unravelling around her. It is a role that is similar to her supporting turn in Sound of Metal, however. Like many of the Skins alumni, Jack O’Connell has had an impressive career, although he hasn’t fully capitalised on the early promise of 71, Starred Up and Unbroken. The upcoming Andrew Haigh miniseries The North Water looks extremely promising, however. He is not as impressive as Cooke here (to be fair, he is hampered by doing an accent, while she is not), but effectively conveys Jude’s panic and desperation, as he realises that he is starting to lose such a fundamental part of his psyche.
Little Fish is a fairly standard indie romance (in the vein of Drake Doremus), made compelling because of a simple but effective premise. Olivia Cooke’s performance also goes a long way in selling the emotions involved and the way the narrative is structured keeps you engaged throughout. It’s hard not to remain invested in the central couple and their plight, because it’s easy to imagine how scary and devastating the scenario would be. It will be interesting to see where director Chad Hartigan and writer Mattson Tomlin (who is co-writing a little film called The? Batman?) go from here.
Little Fish is available in theatres and on demand from Friday 5 Feb 2021.