When Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion” hit theaters almost 10 years ago, it probably seemed, for most American moviegoers, like a horror fantasy.
Even though there had already been a devastating SARS outbreak in Asia in 2003, not to mention the HIV/AIDS crisis that continues to this day.
Now, a year since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we know just how real and deadly a global health emergency can be. In “Little Fish” (IFC), artfully directed by Chad Hartigan from a screenplay by Mattson Tomlin (based on Aja Gabel’s short story), we get a variation on a theme. Set in the near future, NIA (neuroinflammatory affliction), a virus that no one knows how it’s spread, is wreaking havoc on the population. Causing total loss of memory, NIA can infect anyone and there’s no cure.
Emma (Olivia Cooke) is both the female romantic lead and the narrator of the story. She is married to photographer Jude (Jack O’Connell) and works as a vet tech. It’s Emma’s voice we first hear reminding herself to write down important things to remember including the day she and Jude got married.
She’s the one who tells the stories of the fisherman rescued in the ocean, trying to swim home because he forgot how to steer his boat, and the female marathoner who forgot to stop running, and the pilot who forgot how to fly a plane. She also says it’s important not to make it about her and Jude, that it’s bigger than that.
After their New Year’s Eve party rendezvous, Emma and Jude begin to date. They socialize with musicians Ben (Raúl Castillo, who played as a gay character in “Looking”) and Sam (queer actress and musician Soko). Ben is the first person they know to get NIA. His decline is tragic and terrifying.
Emma becomes even more acutely aware of NIA’s effect on the culture at large as more and more abandoned dogs begin to turn up at the animal hospital. Abandoned by owners who forgot how to care for them or simply forgot to close the door to the house or the gate to the yard. Additionally, Emma’s mother in England also begins to show signs of memory loss during their phone conversations, completely unable to remember Jude’s name.
Soon, Jude’s memory begins to slip. He shows up late to a wedding he’s supposed to photograph. He’s having trouble recalling details. He remembers people, but can’t complete connections. Clean for more than five years, an encounter with an old musician friend may have jeopardized his sobriety.
Emma signs Jude up to participate in a clinical trial. He’s selected for evaluation. On the way to the hospital, they encounter a protestor making claims about the government, comparing the response of NIA to that of Reagan and AIDS.
When Jude learns that if he is chosen to participate in the clinical trial, the treatment is not a pill, but an oral cranial puncture, he is visibly shaken. He tells Emma he doesn’t want to do the procedure. After an especially rough patch, it’s obvious that Emma is committed to staying with Jude regardless and doing everything in her power to make their time together unforgettable.
“Little Fish” is both a love and a horror story. Emma and Jude’s romance, which includes matching fish tattoos and a marriage proposal in a pet shop, is one for the ages. But the horrors of the virus dominate almost every frame. Additionally, as it nears its conclusion, “Little Fish” messes with our memory as well as those of its characters. It’s more than a little unsettling, but it also reinforces the impact of the story.
Screen Savor is a weekly column from SFGN’s film critic Gregg Shapiro. Shapiro is an entertainment journalist, whose interviews and reviews run in regional LGBT and mainstream media outlets. Shapiro is the author of seven books including the 2019 chapbooks, Sunshine State and More Poems About Buildings and Food. Shapiro lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida with his husband Rick and their dog Coco.