“Little Fish” is a love in an age of pandemic tale, a melancholy romance about the struggle to hang on when a cornerstone of enduring love is removed — memory.
It’s a sad showcase for Olivia Cooke (“Sound of Metal,” “Ready Player One”) playing a newly married big city veterinarian struggling to go on as all around her are losing their memory to a new illness labeled NIA. As she struggles with the alarm that spreads faster than the contagion, with every tiny lapse of memory, “brain fart” to “senior moment” could be a harbinger of doom, she narrates the single line that sums up the story’s heartbreaking dilemma.
“How can you build a future when you have to keep rebuilding the past?”
“Martin Bonner” and “Morris from America” director Chad Hartigan is dabbling in the “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” realm with this depressingly-timely film, a movie that struggles to be as romantic as it needs to be for its dread of loss to work, and a film that rarely finds a light moment, even in mid-swoon.
British Emma meets dog-lover Jude (Brit Jack O’Connell, with an American accent here) on the overcast, wintry beach outside of Vancouver.
“I was so sad the day I met you,” remembers, more than once in their story. But after meeting him, “I can’t remember why.”
That’s as pithy a summation of falling in love as the movies have given us in ages.
In the fictive present, NIA (Neuroinflammatory Affliction) is running rampant. People are forgetting close friends and family, fishermen forgetting to stay in their boats, pilots are forgetting to fly, mid-flight.
And in flashbacks, “Notebook” style, Emma and Jude remember their whirlwind first meeting.
“Can I kiss you?”
They share a love of dogs, as Emma is a vet tech finishing up school to become a veterinarian when they meet. By the time NIA hits, Emma is established in her career and people are forgetting they have pets. A daily animal control drop-off at her clinic has her admitting, “I’m not even a vet anymore. I’m just an executioner.”
A warning — the saddest moments in the film concern her arm’s length compassion dealing with this very depressing collateral damage from the pandemic.
We see Jude start to screw up at work (he’s a photographer, weddings mostly) and hear his history, see the ways they test each other’s memories, and get a glimmer of hope that spreads like wildfire — “clinical trials.”
Can this romance be saved?
Cooke and O’Connell give their screen relationship a tenderness that is charming, even if attempts at capturing the “fun” feel strained and out of place.
If there’s a shortcoming everyone who sees “Little Fish” picks up on, it has to be its nearly relentless downbeat nature. Based on a short story by Aja Gabel, it traverses the romantic territory between “wistful” and “grieving,” with a few gentle punches and a couple of shots straight to the gut.
Former child actress Cooke is emerging as a formidable romantic lead, and O’Connell’s (“Unbroken,””Seberg”) a solid dramatic presence. We believe them as a couple and root for them. But mourning for what they might be losing is tempered by the film’s lack of sunny romantic highs.
The film’s accidental timing, arriving mid-COVID, don’t allow it to be a sad, sci-fi romantic escape. The masks, clinics, injections and consequences are entirely too current for that to work. And heaven knows, reminding us there are animal companions who pay the price for a vast social disruption is a bummer that will trigger many.
But the Big Truths about love and memory make “Little Fish” worthwhile, almost profound at times. It’s worth a little heartbreak just to experience that.
MPA Rating: unrated, adult themes and situations, smoking
Cast: Olivia Cooke, Jack O’Connell, Soko and Raúl Castillo
Credits: Directed by Chad Hartigan, script by Mattson Tomlin based on an Aja Gabel short story. An IFC release.
Running time: 1:41