Review: ‘When your disaster is everyone’s disaster, how do you grieve?’ asks ‘Little Fish’

Olivia Cooke embraces Jack O'Connell in the movie 'Little Fish."
Olivia Cooke and Jack O’Connell star in “Little Fish.”
(IFC Films)

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About halfway through “Little Fish,” a romantic drama directed by Chad Hartigan, Emma, played by Olivia Cooke, poses an impossible, heartbreaking question to the audience in a voice-over. “When your disaster is everyone’s disaster, how do you grieve?” It’s an idea that we’ve all collectively had to contend with, 11 months into a pandemic that’s claimed more than 2 million lives worldwide. How does one person deal with the devastation in a way that captures the scope of such a tragedy?

That “Little Fish” feels so relevant is, in a way, by design, as this is a film about living through a pandemic. Based on a short story by Aja Gabel, adapted for the screen by Mattson Tomlin, “Little Fish” is the love story of rock photographer Jude (Jack O’Connell) and aspiring veterinarian Emma, married in October 2021, told largely by Emma in a voice-over narration (in the soothing dulcet tones of Cooke’s native Mancunian accent) and in nonlinear flashbacks. This charming courtship and marriage could be perfect except for a global outbreak of a mysterious illness called neuro-inflammatory affliction, a cognitive decline that manifests as persistent forgetfulness. Soon, Jude starts forgetting.


Those with NIA forget the little things at first, and then the big ones. As people start to behave erratically en masse, forgetting how to do their jobs, how to drive, where they are, society descends into chaos and disorder. NIA is similar to Alzheimer’s or dementia, except people of all ages are falling ill, a devastating diagnosis for a teenager, or for a new marriage. As Emma points out, “How can you build a future if you keep having to rebuild the past?” As they witness the effects of the disease on a close friend, Ben (Raúl Castillo), and his partner, Samantha (Soko), Emma asks Jude to remember their first kiss, their first date, their wedding.

Their love story becomes an anchor as they re-inscribe their happy memories together over and over again as a kind of treatment, while exploring other options and clinical trials. It calls to mind films that traffic in the world of memory, including “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Memento,” and even the Adam Sandler rom-com “50 First Dates.” An ambient score by Keegan DeWitt blends with the hazy handheld cinematography by Sean McElwee, which gets hazier as Jude’s memories fade. The film’s naturalistic, lyrical aesthetic is a dance down memory lane of Jude and Emma, their personal histories reduced to their time together, as they rewrite and re-remember their memories again and again.

Hartigan has a knack for sensitive, human dramas, and although “Little Fish” takes place in a near-future heightened reality, the story is relatable not only because we’re all living through a pandemic ourselves — dealing with grief and loss on a scale that ranges from the deeply personal to the impossibly large — but also because this kind of loss is very real. We lose loved ones like this all the time, grasping onto how we knew and loved them. The film eclipses its conceit, delicately examining both the unique pain that is the loss of intimacy and what makes us fall in love with someone again and again.

‘Little Fish’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes

Playing: Starts Feb. 5, Cinelounge Drive-in, Hollywood; Vineland Drive-in, City of Industry; and in limited release where theaters are open; also on VOD