In Pandemic Drama ‘Little Fish,’ Love and Memory Loss Are Both Emotional and Heartbreaking

A young couple in their first year of marriage face tragedy in pandemic romance drama “Little Fish.” While technically a romantic sci-fi, the film doesn’t feel quite as far-fetched as it probably did when it was shot in 2019, as it deals with a global pandemic caused by a new and dangerous virus. Based on a short story of the same name by Aja Gabel, the film follows Emma (Olivia Cooke), an English woman living in Seattle, and her new husband, Jude (Jack O’Connell), as Jude is stricken with this mysterious affliction that causes him to slowly lose his memory.

In the spirit of films like “Memento” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” much of the focus of “Little Fish” is on memory, as Emma and Jude desperately do what they can to hold onto theirs. Set in the not-so-distant future, the world starts to change not long after Emma and Jude’s wedding in October 2021. People start coming down with something called neuroinflammatory affliction, or NIA. In some cases, those afflicted lose all of their memories at once, such as one poor soul who forgot how to fly a plane mid-flight. For others, it’s a slow process, which is what happens to those closest to Emma, including her mother back in England. While many people have to deal with their parents having memory loss, it is almost unheard of for someone in their twenties to deteriorate in such a way, but this is what Emma and Jude are dealing with.

The young couple get a taste of what’s ahead from their best friends, Ben (Rául Castillo) and Sam (Soko). Ben, a musician, comes down with NIA, and his friends and girlfriend help him record his songs before it’s too late. It’s all very romantic until the day comes when Ben pulls a knife out on Sam, whom he has completely forgotten and believes to be an intruder in his home. To prevent themselves from the same fate, Emma and Jude attempt to save their memories in their own ways. Emma writes everything down, and the narrative is interwoven with flashbacks of the early days of their romance. Meanwhile, the more visual Jude takes to writing on the back of photographs. 

Again, viewers watching “Little Fish” will be watching the film in a way director Chad Hartigan and writer Mattson Tomlin could have never anticipated, through the lens of 2021. It’s never fully explained how NIA is transmitted, although it is stated the borders have closed and flights have been grounded, suggesting that this is an airborne disease, like Covid-19. However, we don’t see people wearing masks, save for one scene in which Jude is at a medical center waiting to be evaluated for a clinical trial. Maybe because this is more of a romance the filmmakers didn’t think it was important to get deep into the science of things. Still, the 2021 viewer will certainly feel the tension in a way that they would not have before, as the characters are constantly on edge waiting for the slightest signs of symptoms.

Instead of a vaccine, there is a supposedly simple medical procedure that can cure NIA, one that involves inserting a needle into the brain. It’s so easy that many people attempt to do it at home, and Jude even pushes Emma, a vet, to attempt it on him. Although it is never fully explained, the clinical trials and other factors are preventing this procedure from being widely available, and most viewers will no doubt empathize with the frustrations of Jude, Emma and others who are desperate to be cured and go back to semblance of normalcy.

What “Little Fish” does best is pose some philosophical questions as it explores how much our memories make up who we are. Are you really the same person if you can no longer remember those you love most in this world? There’s also a lot of beauty in “Little Fish,” and the cinematography and haunting score give much of the film a dream-like feel.

Little Fish” releases Feb. 5 on VOD and in select cities.