A couple clings to shared past amid a memory-wiping pandemic in Little Fish

Olivia Cooke and Jack O’Connell star as a young couple struggling to stay together as a memory-wiping virus spreads unchecked in Little Fish.

A young couple fights to hold its relationship together in the midst of pandemic, where a memory loss virus is robbing everyone of their memories in Little Fish, a new science fiction romantic drama from IFC Films. Directed by Chad Hartigan, this thoughtful, genuinely moving film explores themes of memory, self, and the power of shared experiences to forge strong bonds between us, all through the lens of an otherwise average, ordinary Everycouple.

(Some spoilers below.)

The film is loosely based on a short story by Aja Gabel, about a young couple dealing with the man losing his memories in a fictional pandemic, although screenwriter Mattson Tomlin (Project Power) substantially rewrote and fleshed out this core idea. This was well before the current pandemic, but even in the Before Times of 2018, Hartigan was struck by the concept of the world metaphorically crumbling around two people who clung to optimism for the future—and each other. “We never could have imagined or predicted that this would be the case,” Hartigan told Ars. “It always felt to me like an emotional story with a science fiction backdrop.”

Emma (Olivia Cooke, Bates Motel, Ready Player One) is a vet, married to a photographer named Jude (Jack O’Connell, Godless), with a dog named Blue. The memory-wiping epidemic—Neuro-Inflammatory Affliction (NIA)—is in full swing when we meet them; it has already claimed one of their best friends, a songwriter named Ben (Raul Castillo, Looking). The memory loss can be sudden, as when an airline pilot forgets how to operate a plane midflight, with disastrous consequences. Or it can be a slow gradual decline, akin to Alzheimer’s disease. That’s what happened to Ben, driving a wedge between Ben and his partner, Samantha (French singer-songwriter Soko). The final straw is when Sam goes out for groceries and Ben doesn’t recognize her when she returns, attacking her with a kitchen knife because he thinks she’s an intruder.

“How do you grieve?”

When Jude begins showing signs of memory loss, Emma decides to stick with him, reading up on memory-strengthening techniques and working with Jude to hold onto their shared past as long as possible. Emma’s mother is also succumbing to the virus, forcing Emma to choose to stay with Jude at the expense of being with her mother. The same thing is happening to people all around them, every day—so much so that the police are adding everyone they can find into a missing person’s database. Even if they’re not yet missing, there’s a good chance they soon will be. “When your disaster is everyone’s disaster, how do you grieve?” Emma wonders at one point.

Little Fish veers back and forth between past and present, memory and current reality, and it’s not always immediately clear where or when something is happening. That was a deliberate choice, according to Hartigan. “We decided pretty early on that we didn’t want the visual indication of where you were to be so distinct that it was obvious if it was the past, or a false memory,” he said.. “We wanted them to blur together a bit. So we deliberately avoided very blatant visual markers, and that gave us the freedom in the editing room to move scenes around and see where they fit best emotionally.” They even used the old West Side Story trick (when Tony sees Maria across a crowded dance floor) of smearing Vaseline on the camera lens—and sometimes using a prism—to blur everything out except for Emma and Jude in many scenes.

The film intuitively conveys some fundamental aspects of memory. Notably, complete memories are not stored in a handy file in the brain like a scene from a film. Different parts of a memory are stored in different parts of the brain, and every time we “remember” something, we are really building it anew from those various stored components. Indeed, research has shown that remembering the past and imagining the future are roughly the same thing, as far as the brain is concerned. Some of the best scenes in Little Fish are when Emma is trying to help Jude remember key events from their shared life. He thinks he’s “remembering,” but his brain is struggling to fill the gaps, adding in missing details, many of which are incorrect.

While working on the film, Hartigan researched Alzheimer’s disease and its effect on patients’ loved ones. He was also influenced by a 1996 documentary Without Memory, directed by Hirokazu Koreeda, about a Japanese man named Sekine Hiroshi who has a neurological disability that prevents him from forming new memories. “It’s devastating,” said Hartigan. “Every five minutes, this guy just breaks down, because he realizes all over again that he has this disease where he can’t make new memories.” That’s the essence of what Ben and Jude experience: they have the slow-decline variant, so they are aware of their precious memories gradually slipping away.

As Gabel so eloquently wrote in her original short story:

This is what they should have told us: when you try to form a memory in your brain, it’s like holding up two beads to make a necklace, except there’s no string to thread them. So you place them in the hollow of your collarbones and you puff your chest out and with a mix of balance and hope, you wait for something magical to marry them together. For a while it almost sticks. It almost feels like a necklace, an invisible pendant. And then, of course, the beads drop. The thread is the enzyme. The beads are the moment.

The 17th-century physician and philosopher John Locke believed that memories are key to how we construct our personal identities, and that a sense of self would not be possible if we couldn’t remember our past. Whether our memories are essential to our sense of self remains an open matter for debate today.

“I would lean towards essential,” Hartigan said. His film reflects that leaning, although at one point, Jude insists, “I won’t forget how I feel.” Modern neuroscientists would term this episodic, or autobiographical memory; we string together individual memories over our lifetimes to form a continuous coherent personal narrative.

Remember Boswell?

Granted, even someone without autobiographical memory still has some semblance of an “I”—such as a patient known in the neuroscience literature as “Boswell,” who couldn’t recall past memories (including the memory of his wife and children) or form new ones. Boswell had personality traits, social skills, could play checkers, and used first-person pronouns when referring to himself, so those memories likely aren’t crucial for human consciousness. But he no longer had a continuous coherent personal narrative about himself. And how much did losing those autobiographical memories cost him in terms of his meaningful relationships? As Emma muses in the film, “How can you build a future if you keep having to rebuild the past?”

That’s the issue that forms the heart of Hartigan’s haunting film as Emma and Jude try to find their way through an increasingly impossible situation. “How much of our love is just tied to things we’ve gone through together?” Hartigan said of the central questions that shaped Little Fish. “Is it so important to try and save these old shared experiences at the expense of trying to make new ones? If all that was erased, and it was me and you in the room together afresh, would we still feel the same way? I like that the movie is prepared to think about those questions without necessarily offering up concrete explanations or answers.”

So do I.

Little Fish is currently playing in select theaters and available on VOD.

Listing image by IFC Films




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