‘Little Fish’ establishes the importance of shared experience

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"Chad Hartigan, Director" by PunkToad is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Natalie Duerr, news staff

Goldfish are perhaps best known for their lack of awareness and their short memory, as they merrily swim in their tanks with no sense of the world around them. There are times in life where being a mindless goldfish seems like the best option, to be oblivious and wake up on the other side of difficult times, the last eight months being the perfect example. 

The title “Little Fish” hints at this desire to be small and mindless, but Director Chad Hartigan and Writer Mattson Tomlin challenge those desires throughout their film. 

The world on screen doesn’t seem far from our own, even down to an unknown illness sweeping the world. And no, this isn’t some unnecessary drama film about COVID-19 before it’s even over, like Michael Bay’s “Songbird”. Principal photography began in March 2019, so this is just a coincidence. The film follows Emma (Olivia Cooke) who lives with her husband Jude (Jack O’Connell), whom she married about a year before a condition called “Neuroinflammatory affliction” (NIA) washed over the world. The condition causes the patient to lose their memories and abilities to create new ones. For some, memories disappear piece by piece, while others’ minds are instantaneously demolished. Emma isn’t a doctor nor a hero. There’s nothing significant about her, except that it is her story the audience follows.

“Little Fish” is a melancholic love story. It is clear from the very beginning that this film isn’t going to end well for any of the characters. Instead, the audience is presented with their story, their love, and their losses in hopes of maybe carrying them beyond Emma’s capacity. At first thought, memory loss doesn’t seem so bad in being able to forget the pain and suffering of the human condition. Emma talks about how in the beginning there was a romantic aspect to it, with the fisherman who forgot how to steer his boat so he swam back to shore or the bus driver who simply stopped driving and walked home. Their lives were whisked out to sea and with it, all their worries. 

This romanticization is quickly shattered as it becomes clear how destructive memory loss is. A friend of Emma begins to slowly and painfully drift out. At first, they stay positive and help him record all the music he can, but anger and emotions eventually boil over. Hartigan and Tomlin create a balance of sorrow for not only those who lose their memories but also those who have to live in that wake. 

As the film goes on, more and more people in Emma’s life begin to lose their memory too. The film artfully constructs scenes of Emma’s prior life as those around her begin to forget them, allowing the audience to fall more in love with Emma while her relationships flounder. She tries to fill those holes and make those relationships whole again. For a while, she makes it work. But eventually, there is just no longer a wall to be fixed, just space in which one used to exist. Emma clutches to the minutiae of everyday life to try and make it through, waiting for a cure to resume living again. It is perhaps through the loss of these characters’ memories that the most poignant question of the film is asked: are our experiences together the only reason we love someone in the present moment? 

“Little Fish” points to our shared experiences as what bonds us to each other and makes us human. We are simply a history of love, and without that history, we become fish wandering the ocean forgetting our name, those who cared for us and how we came to be. There is comfort in knowing that other people share not only your pain and suffering but your hope for a better future. As Emma’s world collapses, she asks, “How do you build a future when you’re trying to rebuild the past?” 

By placing such an emphasis on Emma’s individual experience, Hartigan and Tomlin ground their otherwise high concept in real human emotion. Unlike films such as “Bourne Ultimatum” and “Memento” that also deal with memory loss, “Little Fish” is not a thriller but an exploration into the human psyche and highlights the importance of our lived experiences.

“Little Fish” is expected to be released on Feb. 5, 2021. This film was screened as part of IFFBoston’s 2020 Fall Focus.