Jude Andrew Williams (Jack O’Connell, “Money Monster”) “always has a camera in his hand and a photograph in his mind.” He met Emma Ryerson (Olivia Cooke, “Ready Player One”) on a day when she was feeling very sad, though she won’t be able to tell you why — she can’t remember. Through Halloween parties, trips to the bar, and eventually moving in together, Jude and Emma navigate their relationship through the moments that define them as a happy loving couple. The world around them fades, but not simply because of their love for each other; Emma tells us about a marathon runner who forgot to stop running, about a fisherman discovered in the water who decided to swim home since he forgot how to steer his boat, about a bus driver who simply stopped the bus and began to walk down the street because he forgot he was a bus driver. Emma describes Neuro-Inflammatory Affliction (NIA), a condition that strikes individuals seemingly at random with no regard for age, race, or gender.
The disease slowly attacks the details in one’s memories, blurring out the sharp edges of people and events from the past and present. Emma is a veterinary tech working in a dog shelter, where the local animal control officer forgets her name again and where she’s forced to monitor the number of days a pet has stayed in their care. Sadly, the owners often don’t respond to her calls to pick up their pets, and Emma is forced to make room for more dogs who show up each day. Emma narrates all of these moments and details seemingly for us, but as the film goes on, we realize, she’s narrating these stories for Jude, because he’s begun to show symptoms of NIA, and she’s terrified of losing him. She wonders one sleepless night, “When your disaster is everyone’s disaster, how do you grieve?”
Based on the short story by Aja Gabel and written for the screen by Mattson Tomlin, Little Fish chronicles the heartbreakingly lovely story of a wife who’s slowly losing her husband to a debilitating Alzheimer’s-like disease, and the strength she employs to keep going, day by day, trying to help hold them together. They support their friend Samantha (Soko, “A Good Man”), whose love Ben (Raúl Castillo, “ We the Animals”) asks for his songs to be recorded before he forgets them completely, and who threatens her one evening — he doesn’t remember where he is, or the identity of the strange woman in the house where he finds himself. She wonders “how to build a future if [her husband] keeps having to rebuild the past? How does one cope with the slow loss of identity, of memories, of loved ones? What decisions can she make, does she make to help save him?
Director Chad Hartigan’s film brings to bittersweet life the story of one couple facing an uncertain future, one foreshadowed in their friends’ lives and one Emma struggles to accept. Jude’s walls always showcased his photography, and they still do now, but the photos are affixed with labels. His days are peppered with brain-teaser questions a medical trial doctor gave him and walks around a city he’s re-discovering, each and every day. Josh Crockett’s editing and Sean McElwee’s cinematography take center stage in Little Fish, as Jude’s and Emma’s memories blend and blur together and as the story unfolds to viewers in small bursts of anecdotal memory. Emma and Jude share close personal moments, but we still see the blurred backgrounds of their world, focusing us on two people loving together in the smallest, yet most impactful ways. You begin this film knowing how sad the scenario will be, but there’s a melancholy beauty in this story, in no small part due to the wonderful strength shown by Cooke in her performance as Emma. Her anchoring gaze and her steadfast narration of their story as she guides Jude through their lives, reminds us of how important it is to cherish the moments we have now with our loved ones, and never to take them for granted. Gabel’s story and Tomlin’s screenplay bring this love to life on-screen, telling a sad tale, but one that is still uplifting in its fragility.