REVIEW: Little Fish [2021]

Rating: 10 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 101 minutes
    Release Date: February 5th, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: IFC Films
    Director(s): Chad Hartigan
    Writer(s): Mattson Tomlin / Aja Gabel (short story)

I was so sad the day I met you.

It happens slow or fast—only those suffering alongside you know for sure. Think Alzheimer’s except without an age threshold or genetic factor. One day you’re yourself and the next finds you either forgetting certain details or everything at once. The disease is known as NIA and it’s been ravaging the world for a while now. Planes are grounded so no more pilots will forget how to fly mid-flight. Stray dogs have increased exponentially because owners don’t realize they ever had a pet. And the few who’ve been spared thus far are destined to watch it all unfold. They’re forced to say goodbye to lives they once cherished more than anything simply to escape from being dragged down too … until it’s their turn to do the dragging.

Emma (Olivia Cooke) and Jude (Jack O’Connell) are no strangers to the affliction that director Chad Hartigan and screenwriter Mattson Tomlin (adapted from Aja Gabel‘s short story) have put on-screen with Little Fish. They’ve already watched their best friends deal with the pain and loss it guarantees courtesy of multiple harrowing experiences ranging from Ben (Raúl Castillo) forgetting how to play bass guitar to him forgetting his one true love (Soko‘s Samantha). So they joke in order to push through. They wonder if some cruel twist of fate will have it that the only person immune has already lost their memory from something else and thus can’t ever be found to synthesize a cure. They laugh because confronting the truth before it becomes necessary is too awful.

But that time is now. As Emma narrates from her desk, desperate to write down everything about hers and Jude’s courtship so that he can read it and perhaps fix his brain on his own, we realize the end is closer than ever. Think Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind but with a more grounded sci-fi premise that focuses on a universal here and now rather than the whimsically imaginative ways in which we can individually travel back. Neither of them asked for this. Neither of them is ready to let go. They simply keep putting one foot in front of the other to make as many new memories as possible while searching for ways to tether themselves to the old. That means routine questions, repetitive recall, and memory tattoos.

We therefore watch from two perspectives at once: the reliable and the unreliable. Emma asks Jude to remember their first kiss and we see it unfold differently than the memory we saw twenty or so minutes previously with her correcting his mistakes as it progresses. The only things that sync then are the moments unfolding today. Whether or not Jude knows his wife when he wakes up doesn’t play into what he sees after they leave their home. The graffiti, sirens, and suicides are all in crisp focus and the dread that they may end up just as hopelessly incapable of coming out the other side rises. Maybe Jude will get into a surgical trial. Maybe some other miracle will save the day. The only certainty is now.

To witness them embrace that truth is as heartbreaking as noticing the signs of his deterioration. They say feelings aren’t forgotten, but how can they not once identity is? That which was spoken one day is erased the next and replaced by the opposite. Risks too high to attempt become demands. Confusion becomes clarity and joy becomes anguish. And what evidence is there to believe anything we’ve seen besides Emma’s unwavering desire to make it real? What about her experiences is she losing if it’s Jude that’s fading away? Does the disease render their love less potent? Does it destroy what they had? Or does this threat of losing everything make it that much more important? Who’s to say we can’t even do it all again?

These questions give Little Fish a cyclical nature—a sort of ouroboros that simultaneously travels forwards and backwards to make it so we as viewers ascribe meaning to moments before fully grasping how they truly go together. But whether our interpretation via Hartigan’s choices of what we’re able to see and when is right or wrong doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things when the emotions born from the journey reveal themselves to be present regardless. That’s the thing about memory. It’s never exact. What we know is only our version and even that is riddled with flaws and imperfections created by time and distraction. The acts themselves are thus rendered inconsequential the moment they’re over. That which lingers is the profound feeling of their impact.

So it doesn’t matter when Emma and Jude got married or when they met. Those events are markers on a path towards the love that connects them. It’s why Emma’s questions are less about the details than how those details draw her within Jude’s mind. By reiterating them, he can put images (incomplete or not) to his feelings and hopefully bolster the latter a little longer. That’s the advantage of a slow decline. You may think a fast one is less painful because the shift occurs overnight, but we all know that the one thing we wish for when our loved ones are gone is another day. And if Jude knows who Emma is to him even if he forgot her, that’s one more day for him too.

It still hurts like hell, though. Hartigan and company don’t hold their characters’ hands or ours in that effect. The subtle ways in which Emma and Jude are torn apart are thus felt throughout the film in ways that prove devastating and beautiful. That he’s cognizant of his decline allows him to prepare for what’s coming and say everything he wants to say. And while it scares her more than him since he’s unaware of what’s been lost until someone reminds him, she never retreats. This couple moves with courage towards a future that probably can’t be altered. They’ve seen the destruction others have left and consoled those who needed to go for their own salvation, but they know their journey is different. It’s manageable enough to stay.

And so we witness how that beauty and turmoil interconnect—good days and bad nothing more than extensions of each other. We learn about meaning after already seeing its mark and understand sorrow after enjoying the wonder it laments. Emma and Jude are falling in love and losing it in concert as we move from past to present with a fluidity that keeps emotions intact if not linear progression, but that’s the point. Just because the journey disappears doesn’t mean the result ceases to be. Cooke and O’Connell prove as much with every look, smile, and tear that feelings can’t be forgotten even when they are. Because if two people can find each other once, why couldn’t they do it again? Sometimes stars aligned prove permanent.

[1] Olivia Cooke as ‘Emma’ and Jack O’ Connell as ‘Jude’ in Chad Hartigan’s LITTLE FISH. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.
[2] Olivia Cooke as ‘Emma’ and Jack O’ Connell as ‘Jude’ in Chad Hartigan’s LITTLE FISH. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.
[3] Olivia Cooke as ‘Emma’ and Jack O’ Connell as ‘Jude’ in Chad Hartigan’s LITTLE FISH. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.

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