The edit for this prescient pandemic film was finished just before Covid-19 hit North America. Imagine the circumstances. Just as the film wrapped, the crew went into their own quarantine, with no space from their imagined creation and the terrifying new reality that mirrors it. Chad Hartigan adapts the short story by Aja Gabel, where a rapidly spreading disease infects a sizable amount of the population. It’s like Alzheimers, called NIA (neuroinflammatory affliction), it drastically impacts memory. Joggers never reach their destination and keep on jogging, without destination. Bus drivers forget how to drive their bus. Folks forget their families, homes, occupations. The disease arrives as a cultural fissure, upsetting the very fabric of society. The remarkable coincidence of it all is almost staggering and certainly lucky for the project. Set in Seattle, where our present virus was first identified in The States, it’s also a tragic reminder of those first few months. Maybe we’ll get back to normal soon. Maybe we’ll forget what normal is.
“I was so sad the day I met you,” so begins the story, as conveyed through diary entries. This format, carried over from the short story, is what makes the film formally interesting. Given the nature of the memory loss pandemic, we must trust in the words of our narrator. Perhaps at some point they become unreliable. The design is such that a viewer may come away with an entirely different conclusion than their friends. Given the perspective of film — we are so often shown what to believe — the tragic beauty of Little Fish is that the correct version of events is unknowable.
Shot in Seattle, cinematographer Sean McElwee keys into distinctive aspects of Pacific Northwest aesthetics. Seattle (and it’s regular cinematic stand-in, Vancouver) make for the most gorgeous of shooting locations. Little Fish plays expertly into the blues and the grays of the area. It capitalizes on the cool, cold beaches, and energetic punk spirit of the place. It captures shifting cinematic spaces, repeated sequences, and changing apartments, with clues and clear indications of what is really happening in the story. A few of the choices are so smart and well devised, that it’s a shame not to share them specifically, and spoil the whole matter.
Why does Little Fish succeed swimmingly, where other pandemic films have fallen short? It’s possibly too soon for a story that directly reflects our reality. Given we’re still deep into the throws of this deadly virus, nothing feels so opportunistic as Hollywood selling and repackaging what we see on the news. It creates quite a visceral and unintended reaction, of repugnant producers capitalizing on our present plight. We realize that must happen much more often, in less obvious and glaring ways, that go totally unnoticed.
And yet, Little Fish is built on a foundation of deep empathy. The well-paired Olivia Cooke and Jack O’Connell play such lived in parts. Their characters have just gotten married. They are living fulfilling, full lives, in a suspiciously large (probably multi-million dollar) Seattle apartment. She works with animals. He’s a songwriter between projects. Despite many financial questions this raises, they’re such a treat together, we should want to forgive nearly anything.
The plotting does not always make sense. Given that the film could not have predicted any outcome that it might launch into the greatest modern pandemic, in some ways its portrayal of the fallout may now feel blissfully undercooked. The news reporters making a small mockery of the virus, realizing it only as Alzheimers and not any new kind of threat, mirrors the total lack of seriousness that we saw from the top of our country’s leadership. Despite the society-shifting realities of everyone losing their memories, it never really goes too badly for anyone in Little Fish. Quaintly, the impetus of the story is instead used to wrap a history of a romance around it, as well as the characters can remember their histories. It never feels quite as haunting or consuming as a present threat as the situation calls for, instead utilizing its pandemic as a cute construction for a romance plot, like the superb and underrated 50 First Dates (2004).
Little Fish comes from just the right place. Moving and often gorgeous, it’s truly the first success of our Covid cinema, and one of the clear highlights of a troubled early movie season. When there is not so much else to watch and the news gets you down, this may be just the right antidote.