Sometime in the near future, a virus has swept across the world. Screenwriter Mattson Tomlin and director Chad Hartigan would obviously have had no idea that such a fact would be unsurprising to viewers of their movie by the time it was released, in the middle of an actual pandemic. In a stroke of genius, perhaps, the virus in Little Fish is more horrifying than anything we could really imagine. Known as neuroinflammatory affliction (NIA), the main symptom of the virus is a gradual loss of all memory. The film implies that there is an “other side” to this virus, but it resembles the makings of a clean slate. One can no longer remember things, and when the virus is through, one can finally form new memories.

The screenplay divides the events of the movie into two timelines, following one couple by way of a nonlinear framework from the first whispers of a virus to the promise of a cure. Emma (Olivia Cooke) met Jude (Jack O’Connell) while dating someone else (we receive a glimpse of that relationship, which is nearing its end anyway, so it’s likely no one was genuinely hurt) and, after his gentle persistence and general charm, began dating him, just as NIA started to make its rounds in the United States. This is what constitutes the flashbacks in the screenplay. In the present, Emma’s job as veterinarian has shifted toward simply putting down animals forgotten by their owners, and Jude begins to exhibit symptoms of the virus.

A kernel of hope arrives in the present in the form of a potential cure. In a scathing commentary on the healthcare system (a situation that, curiously enough, has basically been mirrored in our current reality), that cure becomes unavailable almost immediately upon approval by the FDA. Emma tries to enter Jude into an experimental trial involving that cure, but the machinations of some institution (Big Pharma, perhaps, proving that such things only strengthen in times of distress) ensures he does not qualify.

The film’s primary goal is to observe a romantic relationship under the strain of a pandemic like this. The stakes are, of course, impossibly high. Either Emma or Jude could forget the other at a moment’s notice, and Cooke and O’Connell, through emotionally precise performances and a whole reservoir of charming chemistry, certainly make us hope they’ll make it through this disaster scenario. Jude proposes to Emma in a way that leads to the reason the film has this semi-precious title. Then he slowly forgets that reason. It’s devastating to witness.

If there is any flaw in Tomlin’s screenplay, it’s the film sometimes evades a full picture of their relationship outside of this context, but perhaps that is also understandable. They met, after all, at the beginning of the pandemic. NIA has defined everything about who they are together.

The virus, too, doesn’t quite follow perfect internal logic when taken as a device of the screenplay, but perhaps that also doesn’t quite matter. We know now that, although they have a certain logic as biological entities existing within science, viruses are unpredictable. The most heartbreaking example is when Jude’s friend Ben (Raúl Castillo) forgets his girlfriend Samantha (Soko), whom he has known for a decade, but not Jude, whom he has known for only a few years. This is what humanity is in for: an affliction whose symptoms are unpredictable and whose victims are unwitting.

The jagged nature of the narrative ends up being crucial to the film’s cumulative power, as the pieces of the relationship and how we come to understand them are brought together by a clever bit of misdirection. Spoiling things would be irresponsible, but in vague terms, it involves where the opening scene, which depicts a Meet Cute of sorts, falls in the film’s timeline. This is the only direction in which Little Fish could have gone, and that tragic inevitability elevates the film above its occasionally frustrating elliptical nature.

The jagged nature of the narrative ends up being crucial to the film’s cumulative power.
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Pandemic Love
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