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'Little Fish' May Have Been Filmed Before COVID-19, But It Gets The Pandemic Right


Imagine a global pandemic where people don't get sick; they just forget - contagious memory loss. That is the premise of a new movie called "Little Fish." Critic Bob Mondello says it'll stick with you.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Jude and Emma got married about a year ago. They are head over heels in love, but life has gotten complicated. When Emma gets up in the middle of the night, she writes things down just to be sure. She's heard stories - always from somewhere else.


OLIVIA COOKE: (As Emma) Like the story of the man stranded in the ocean, picked up by a fishing boat. It turned out he was another fisherman - he said he couldn't remember how to steer it, so he decided to swim home - or the woman in the marathon who forgot to stop running and then a pilot who forgot how to fly.

MONDELLO: On screen, we see the sight of a plane crash.


COOKE: (As Emma) They call it NIA, neuroinflammatory affliction. It can affect anyone, and there's no cure.

MONDELLO: Emma and Jude have lost one friend to NIA - not a sudden fail like the pilot. Their friend faded away slowly - hard to say which is worse. Now they realize Jude may be fading, too.


COOKE: (As Emma) This is an ongoing argument I've been having. We were just about to get into it half an hour ago. It was just now.

JACK O'CONNELL: (As Jude) I don't remember that.

COOKE: (As Emma) Oh, my God. Did you know this was happening?

O'CONNELL: (As Jude) No. How am I going to know? I forgot.

COOKE: (As Emma) Do you know who I am?

O'CONNELL: (As Jude) Yeah. You're my wife, Evita.

COOKE: (As Emma) Where did we meet? What's your father's name? Where did you grow up?

O'CONNELL: (As Jude) Emma.

MONDELLO: The movie "Little Fish" - that title refers to something that seemed unforgettable about the day Jude proposed - was completed back before COVID-19 shut the world down. But director Chad Hartigan and screenwriter Mattson Tomlin guessed right about a lot of pandemic particulars - masks in public, jams at hospitals...


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) If you are experiencing NIA symptoms, I need you over here.

MONDELLO: ...Visits to family becoming difficult, workplaces feeling dicey.


COOKE: (As Emma) Print this, Frank.

TOBY HARGRAVE: (As Frank) Sure. Sorry - your name again?

COOKE: (As Emma) Emma.

HARGRAVE: (As Frank) Emma - right.

MONDELLO: The filmmakers don't dwell on any of the big societal problems. They keep things intimate, concentrating on the central couple and the existential threat that they could lose the memory bank that they're only just starting to build.


COOKE: (As Emma) Jude.

O'CONNELL: (As Jude) Yeah.

COOKE: (As Emma) Hey. I'm going now.

O'CONNELL: (As Jude) All right.

COOKE: (As Emma) You good?

O'CONNELL: (As Jude) Yeah, just waking up.

MONDELLO: The simplest things still worth preserving. And these two are inveterate preservers, Jack O'Connell's Jude a photographer who is forever documenting photos of his wife, their dog, each one labeled in case he should ever need a reminder; Olivia Cooke's Emma, whose journal does much the same thing with words. They're in this to win, though they keep being reminded, even on a drive to the country, that the epidemic doesn't care how determined they are.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) IDs, please.

O'CONNELL: (As Jude) Is this road closed, sir, or what?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Just the IDs.

O'CONNELL: (As Jude) Why?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Government-mandated for the missing persons database.

COOKE: (As Emma) But we're not missing.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Not yet.

MONDELLO: When it's not catching you up short with that sort of sharpness, the film has an almost dreamlike quality - wistful, soft focus, hard to pin down with details shifting as characters struggle with their recollections. It's easy to see a film about global memory loss as a metaphor for dementia, and in one exchange, the main characters actually allude to Alzheimer's in a jokey sort of way. They're young, and that sort of separation and loss, a whole life slipping away, seems inconceivable until it doesn't.


COOKE: (As Emma) When your disaster is everyone's disaster, how do you grieve?

MONDELLO: That question is what makes "Little Fish" feel attuned to this moment, an accident of timing that you wish you could forget.

I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.