The year is 2021. A frightened, angry crowd lines up outside a medical center, desperate for a cure for a terrible virus. “He pushed in front!” someone shouts.
Talk about timing. When he began making “Little Fish,” an intimate and affecting romance in a sci-fi setting, director Chad Hartigan had no idea the world would be coping with a real pandemic in the real 2021. Watching this fictional society begin to fray in panic feels just a tad too close for comfort.
Perhaps it’s for the best, then, that “Little Fish,” starring the very appealing duo of Olivia Cooke and Jack O’Connell, is a sci-fi romance that doesn’t spend too much time on the “sci.”
Yes, this virus – NIA, or Neuroinflammatory Affliction – terrifyingly causes its victims to lose their memories, sometimes suddenly and sometimes slowly, with no relation to age, gender or anything else. But the focus here is on the role that memory plays in a relationship. Obviously, the memories we create together are crucial building blocks. But if they disappear, does the love remain? And what does that look like? Without a past, can we have a present, not to mention a future?
We begin on a windswept beach in the Seattle area. A young woman, Emma, sits alone, crying. A friendly dog runs up for a cuddle, soon followed by its owner, Jude. He’s surprised by her charming northern England accent. They smile.
The clever script by Mattson Tomlin flips around in time over the couple’s yearlong relationship.
There’s no question we’re rooting for both of these charismatic characters.
Soon they’re a couple, building memories together like that time they painted their walls yellow — Emma’s favorite color — and had a rambunctious paint fight. But remember — these memories come to us just as they’re getting lost. And so we wonder: Whose memories are we seeing, anyway? His, hers, or no one’s?
The first scary reports seem far away from everyday life. There’s a fisherman who forgot how to operate his boat, so he jumped into the water to swim home. People suddenly forget how to drive cars. Most seriously, pilots lose the ability to fly, midair.
And then, Jude. At first it’s the little details — he shows up hours late to a job taking wedding pictures. He forgets arguments he and Emma just had. One day Emma sees that he’s labeled the back of a photo: “Emma, wife.” It’s a desperate race against time to find a cure, or a treatment. Cooke’s slow-burn panic is heartbreaking to watch.
The film has strong echoes of the 2004 classic “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” where the same question arose: What remains when memories disappear? On top of this, “Little Fish” asks, how much are we allowed to mourn when the grief is not unique to us?
Or, in a line from Emma that surely couldn’t be more timely in the real 2021: “When your disaster is everyone’s disaster, how do you grieve?”
“Little Fish,” an IFC Films release, is unrated by the Motion Picture Association of America. Running time: 101 minutes. JOCELYN NOVECK, MDT/AP