Olivia Cooke and Jack O'Connell in Little Fish (2021)
Imagine waking up and not remembering the person you love. The thought of having to piece back together a meaningful relationship, and rebuild precious memories you once held so dear, is a process explored thoughtfully in Little Fish. The film, directed by Chad Hartigan and based on Aja Gabel’s short story of the same title, is a romance set in a society teetering on the brink of massive loss. While not specifically set in a post-COVID world, and in fact made prior to the pandemic, Little Fish echoes eerie similarities to a forever changed planet. The love story at its dreamy center unfolds in the midst of a mysterious virus outbreak, which causes its victims to lose their memories. Without warning or reasoning, the pandemic erases minds and there is no telling who will be affected (nor is there a cure). Some people will snap all at once. Some will slowly fade away. Little Fish tells this story through two main characters, Emma (Olivia Cooke) and Jude (Jack O’Connell), a newlywed couple holding onto each other for dear life as the pandemic blurs lines between truth and fiction. Little Fish is a poetic, grounded portrait of unforgettable love that resonates most through devastating depictions of memory loss.
Little Fish unfolds in a daze. The film plays out like multiple threads tied to one long memory. Non-linear storytelling introduces two people meeting for the first time, flows into a whirlwind snapshot of them falling in love, and traces back to the beginning of their relationship. Within the first few minutes of the film, it’s unclear what exactly is the past and present. “It was hard to believe that was only the beginning,” says Emma during the character’s opening narration. As an audience member, the feeling is shared. Little Fish works in mysterious ways. The director (Hartigan) and screenplay writer (Mattson Tomlin) create a dream-like atmosphere, which makes you question the film’s timeline and what the central focus of the story will become. Grounding the film with heartfelt commitment, a talented ensemble of actors indicate where you are in their characters’ journeys, and give clues for where the pandemic-set story is headed.
One of the most terrifying aspects about Neuroinflammatory Affliction (NIA), the virus causing this pandemic, is its symptoms. At what point does common forgetfulness become a warning sign? Emma narrates stories she had heard…like the one about a woman found running alone at night, having forgotten to stop at the finish line of a race. Given the alarming rate at which the virus is spreading, there’s also the inevitable: witnessing situations firsthand, like Emma and Jude’s bus ride home, during which the driver suddenly stops and walks out into the street. Knowing that severe cases such as this can occur, Emma’s relationship to the forgetfulness she sees in others is understandably analytical. The immediate worry is: this is a warning sign. It could be the most seemingly innocent moments…like Emma at her vet job encountering a distracted delivery driver, Emma’s mum forgetting Jude’s name during a phone call, Jude turning up late to photograph a wedding. In any case, Emma’s guard is up. The more these symptoms appear (particularly as Jude’s forgetfulness worsens), the more eager Emma is to get ahead of the situation and the more inclined Jude feels to keep his memory loss a secret.
Little Fish is framed in such a way that the pandemic is written more as a backdrop than a plot device pushing the story along. At the core of this film is an emotional love story between two people, dealing with the slow drip of memory loss and its ripple effect on their future as a couple. The film not only jumps through their past and present, but also a simulation of time…showing moments Emma and Jude recall based on how they remember, which may or may not be reality. The film is a fascinating depiction of love in that it questions whether this couple can weather losing the building blocks of their relationship, and what this means for their longevity when they attempt to rebuild from crumbling memories. An added fascination is the role photography plays in the story, particularly with Jude as photographer and Emma as subject. The emphasis on using photos as memories is a moving reminder of the power photography has to capture the feeling of a special moment.
Olivia Cooke and Jack O’Connell work together like a dream. Cooke’s performance in particular is exemplary, and her chemistry with O’Connell gives ample weight to this love story as the driving force of the film. Most impressive about Cooke is her ability to detail a relationship in its genesis, honeymoon, and steady decline, while also grounding the director’s free flowing storytelling. What never becomes ambiguous is the love between these two characters, above all finding some footing amidst shared grief. The supporting characters, mainly the couple’s friends Ben (Raúl Castillo) and Samantha (Soko), show a frightening and distressing version of dealing with memory loss in a relationship. Castillo and Soko both give a resonating layer of perspective to the story. The setting to this story is eerie, not just on the level of living in a pandemic but also the parallel to Alzheimer’s and the devastation of fading away, whether suddenly or slowly. With so many lines blurred between reality and pretense, watching Little Fish unfold is like watching one train of thought. Sometimes the film relies a little too much on the lines being blurred; at a certain point, weaving through time frames loses its impact and emotional investment. But what echoes in its conclusion is the urge to hold onto memories near and dear. Little Fish is an intriguing love story about the building blocks that make a relationship, and how emotions between two people can linger even as memories fade.