Memories represent the ultimate form of wealth. The proof of this lies in having them stripped away, one at a time. Think of meeting your eventual spouse, holding your newborn baby, or driving a car for the first time. For anybody with any cognitive illness, these experiences blow away in the breeze, like so many dandelion spores. Ultimately, the essence of our individuality–our humanity–floats off with them.
This slow, savage drift forms the basis of Little Fish, a romantic drama that effectively blends sweet and sad. It’s the near-future, and virulent variant of dementia wracks the globe. The key difference is that while Alzheimer’s and its ilk typically–although not exclusively–hone in on the elderly and inform, this cognitive Black Death doesn’t discriminate. Young and old alike suddenly find their memories riddled with bullet holes. No cure is presently known.
Emma (Olivia Cooke) and Jude (Jack O’Connell) are a newly married couple, still in the giddy bask of their honeymoon phase. Their adorable love gets shaken to the core when Jude starts to show signs of slipping. At first, only tidbits of memory seem to be lost. Unfortunately, it’s not long before wholesale chunks of Jude’s life seem to be lost to the fog.
This puts the couple into a thicket of emotions: Frustration, sadness, rage, mingle with the ache of nostalgia. Jude begins to forget details of their wedding–how long until he forgets her altogether? Will this disease eventually spread to her?
“When your disaster is everyone’s disaster, how do you grieve?” Yet another movie that was made pre-COVID gets its impact altered by the pandemic’s ragged sprawl. Fish is eerily prescient in its depiction of the mad scramble for a cure, misinformation about the disease and its potential treatment, and the general fraying of polite society. Also, I can’t help but notice that there seems to be an absence of leadership…much like the first year of our own outbreak. (Full disclosure: This review is being written several weeks before Joe Biden gets sworn in. It’s my fervent prayer that you future readers are enjoying a world where our president makes some actual f*cking sense. Phew! That felt good.)
By now, you may get a whiff that Little Fish bears a little resemblance to a few classic films: For one, it’s a softer, sweeter Children of Men, wherein humanity has to cope with the gradual approach of its final chasm. You’ll also catch a little Still Alice and Iris, two of the best movies about the fear and resilience of people afflicted with memory loss. Most interestingly, Little Fish is a flip-side Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Jim Carrey’s underrated rom-com that finds he and Kate Winslet trying to delete each other from their brains. This time, Jude and Emma fight to retain every memory, right down to the wall color surrounding their first kiss.
Cooke and O’Connell make a perfect lead couple. They’re so gosh darn adorable, you get the feeling that one of them is going to pick up a ukulele and start singing to the other. You’ll also feel their pain, as the best moments of their lives start floating away. Raúl Castillo and Soko also make a strong impression as Jude and Emma’s best friends and fellow victims of the virus. The cast gets a big boost from screenwriter Mattson Tomlin, who delivers sharp dialogue that doesn’t beat you over the head with cutesy cleverness.
For Jude and Emma, their lives together now resemble one last glass of fine wine. They have to sip and savor carefully, for the glass will soon run dry. Little Fish is a wonderful film that reminds us just how much who we are is defined by where we’ve been and who went with us a long the way. Those of us who can remember all those moments are wealthy indeed.
101 min. NYR.