By Mary Sollosi
February 06, 2021 at 07:51 PM EST
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It's tempting to make everything that resembles the last year about the last year, but despite taking place amid a global pandemic, Little Fish resonates mostly as a love story. Director Chad Hartigan's sci-fi romantic drama (out now), which was produced long before COVID-19 hit and originally scheduled to premiere at 2020's canceled Tribeca Film Festival, follows a married couple living in the near future, where a pandemic — this time of an affliction that attacks the mind — has changed the landscape of human life.

Olivia Cooke stars as Emma, a vet tech married to Jude (Jack O'Connell), a photographer and recovered addict. They live with their dog, Blue, in a home marked by a gratingly urban-millennial aesthetic and world altered by the ongoing N.I.A. pandemic — a disease that steals your memories, be it slowly or all at once. There are no known precautions one can take to avoid contracting N.I.A. (which is not the same thing as Alzheimer's, as a line casually acknowledging the apparent similarities confirms), nor an existing cure, though clinical trials have begun testing a procedure to reverse its effects.

Directing from Mattson Tomlin's script based on Aja Gabel's short story, Hartigan creates an effective atmosphere of vague paranoia surrounding the invisible terror, as well as the all-too-familiar sense that people have adjusted to certain aspects of this as a new normal. Any person in any public place could lose awareness of where they are and lash out; any worker performing a necessary job could immediately forget how to do it; every time a friend or loved one forgets something small in casual conversation, they become unusually defensive, and the people around them register the mistake as if keeping score. It's just a matter of time for most people, and within the film's central couple, it's Jude who finally makes too many errors to ignore.

Emma tries constantly to help him piece his memory back together, and so the story of their romance is told in tandem with that of their pandemic crisis. Like their apartment décor, some pieces of their love story (just wait until you get to the part that explains the title) are a little too adorably understated, that particular brand of oh-so-accidental quirk that characterizes a whole genre of contemporary films. The whole narrative is presented through Emma's perspective, including through the use of a regrettably self-serious voiceover that Cooke delivers admirably despite its emo-noir excess.

She and O'Connell both bring the cool project a necessary warmth that sells their relationship, which is the real star here, enough to carry the movie. The premise invites easy comparisons to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which is a more original, insightful, and affecting film across the board. But that doesn't mean Little Fish isn't a worthy complement, its sci-fi conceit giving its central question a poetic shape.

"It feels wrong to make this about us. It's bigger than us," Emma says at one point (in one of her pandemic-related observations that speaks to our own COVID captivity). It is bigger than just them, but her unwieldy terror about the disaster all around her must inevitably contract to focusing on the concentrated piece of it in front of her, which is all the more consuming for its immediacy. From there, too, does her and Jude's shared existence itself shrink as his memory fades faster and she bothers to fill in fewer of its ever-broadening gaps.

But a great love is, of course, more than just its story. (Unfortunately, this concept must be made explicit: "What are we even trying to save? Our experiences together? Is that all I love about you?") Overexplained though it may be, it's a notion worth savoring — and Hartigan expresses it best in the film's finale, which is expertly set up and packs a punch even if you've predicted what it might hold. Maybe that's the greatest surprise of the movie, after all: Obsessed though it is with the past, throughout its whole runtime, the best part always lies ahead. B

Little Fish is out now. Video courtesy of IFC Films.

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