Little Fish (2021) Ending Explained

Last night, I watched a film titled Little Fish, directed by Chad Hartigan and written by Mattson Tomlin, starring Olivia Cooke and Jack O’Connell. I went asleep thinking about it, and woke up with it on my mind. As a film concerning memory, it’s very apt in its use of the medium to cloud what is seeming reality in layers of supposition, crafting a narrative which becomes ever richer in meaning the more you ponder it. As of now, the Wikipedia page is surprisingly empty, so I thought I’d have a crack at the ending, discussing some implications of certain dialogue and scenes.


Little Fish is a 2021 sci-fi romantic drama, set during a pandemic (but produced before the pandemic) where people are afflicted by an illness that targets their memory, causing them to forget both long-term and short-term details. It follows Emma and Jude — a couple who try to sustain their relationship under the pressure of this newfound illness.

 NIA (Neuro-Inflammatory Affliction) 

Neuro-Inflammatory Affliction (NIA) is the name given to the memory loss illness in the film. It is said that it affects people in two ways: as a slow ‘drip’ of memories, where people lose fragments at a time, or as a sudden ‘snap,’ where people forget huge amounts all of a sudden. In the film, the government is trialling a controversial ‘cure,’ delivered to patients as an ‘oral cranial puncture’ which proves to be a surprise success. However, due to overwhelming demand, many are blocked from accessing treatment.

 Misdirection and Unreliable Narration 

The film contains a lot of misdirection, with vague continuity and a clever use of flashbacks which purposefully obfuscate the chronology of the narrative, teasing the idea that Emma and Jude’s ‘before’ and ‘after’ may have already been shown come the end.

Early in the film, a scene from Jude’s apartment balcony shows little army men with red parachutes. Later in the film, the same shot shows them with yellow parachutes. Are one or both characters misremembering, or has this moment happened twice? Throughout the film, Jude incorrectly recalls details: the colour of a wedding dress, seasons, the shape of designs on a wall. Such events are shown from two perspectives, but Emma’s narration throughout seems to suggest that Jude’s perspective is the incorrect one. Sure enough, an army man with a red parachute is seen hanging from a lamp in one of the film’s earliest scenes.

One hour and seven minutes into the film, Emma and Jude walk past Jude’s former apartment. Jude seems to recall the location, but Emma dismisses the notion that they had ever been there. Is Emma trying to lessen the burden on Jude, or has she herself forgotten also? Again, the narration seems to suggest the former.

However, how reliable is Emma’s narration? In the opening montage, Emma, lying awake at night, goes to write down memories in her notebook. Later, we cut to her waking up, having only managed a few words. She says she simply fell asleep, but on second watch, it seemed director Chad Hartigan and writer Mattson Tomlin want you to question or second guess if Emma is able to accurately remember. Even in her opening narration, she pointedly remarks how she can’t remember certain details, such as a song. The film includes a lot of moments which make viewers ponder whether characters are simply forgetting things, or whether they have the NIA illness.

It is shown later in the film that Emma has been forgetting details longer than she may realise, making you question whether or not her recollection is ultimately as dubious as Jude’s. It is unclear when in the timeline this opening scene of Emma lying awake takes place, but it appears to be after Jude’s diagnosis, little fish Ampersand (Emma’s engagement present) having seemingly long perished, judging by the empty fish tank, making it not wholly removed from Emma’s realisation that she, too, has NIA. However, the passage of time in the film is made purposefully unclear; the film’s non-linear narrative and confusing continuity is itself a representation of fragmented memory, masking a timeline which may span much longer than it first seems.

 Beginning and Ending 

The line “I was so sad the day I met you… I can’t remember why” is spoken three times in the film by Emma. Once, in narration during the beach scene at the beginning, again in narration during the beach scene at the end, and once as spoken dialogue by Emma one hour and five minutes into the film, where the couple talk about how they first met at a waterpark. The waterpark scene is shown as flashback — as recollection — and seems oddly isolated, like a dream in which you don’t remember the beginning or the end.

Both beach scenes are two halves of a whole. The film begins with the ‘ending,’ and ends just moments before. During the beach scene before the credits, Jude forgets Emma entirely. Emma, due to the trauma, seems to have a large ‘snap’ of NIA symptoms and, in turn, forgets Jude, as shown in the same beach scene at the very beginning of the film. The characters make a point throughout about how you “can’t forget feelings,” which is why Emma felt so sad having just ‘met’ Jude on the beach, as she had just lost him moments earlier.

 — Multiple Timelines? 

Emma’s voice over; “I was so sad the day I met you,” suggests, if we’re to take it to refer to the day on the beach, that at least some of the events of the film take place after Emma and Jude have already lost their memories of each other. Both seemingly start together again for a second time, unbeknownst to them, with a confusing amalgamation of memories and recollections where both or neither may be correct in the details they look back on. This notion works with the inclusion of the traffic stop scene when Emma and Jude are on their way to the beach, where they have to hand over their IDs to a police officer, who inputs them into some sort of missing persons database. Emma says to the police officer; “We’re not missing,” who replies; “Not yet.” This gives Emma and Jude a logical way off of the beach post-memory loss, and a way that they may be reconnected as spouses.

However, the waterpark scene fits in a little awkwardly in this chronology. The scene itself is framed as Emma and Jude’s real first meeting, but is slightly vague in parts. When Emma asks Jude if he remembers meeting her, he simply states; “I remember a waterpark,” and the two reminisce. Emma says; “We were the oldest people there,” and Jude retorts; “We were the only people there,” despite there being other people in the background, though the flashback scenes repeatedly tamper with continuity. The two speak of this as their first meeting, but the notion that Emma and Jude are themselves unreliable narrators could suggest this is another fanciful memory alongside others in the same scene, with what exactly occurred and when becoming increasingly vague on second watch.

 — A More Linear Tale? 

Instead, you can take it at face value — the waterpark scene is certain and Emma was simply feeling sad both times she ‘first’ met Jude. In the short story by Aja Gabel which the film is based on, Emma first meets Jude at the waterpark, and is feeling sad because it is closing down, though, notably in the film, Emma can’t recall the reason for her sorrow, though she does remember the closing of the waterpark. Perhaps the narration is simply her recorded memories à la the notebook, as it is in the short story, recounting the story of their relationship, and is not as questionable as it seems.

Either way, the ending at first seems hopeful for Emma and Jude with a re-encounter and the notion that their relationship flourishes for a second time; perhaps the ‘so sad the day I met you’ dialogue is included as an anchor to suggest this, with both encounters beginning to same way. Yet we are also to assume they are going through (or will go through) NIA for a second time. Perhaps they are doomed to continue in a loop until the eventual rollout of the curative procedure which the film touches on. It’s a sci-fi, after all.

It’s open to interpretation, with the lack of finer details surrounding NIA making it all the more equivocal. After losing memory completely, it seems people can certainly re-learn specifics, but they appear doomed to forget those again. Perhaps, after a complete wipe, the illness lies dormant until the brain can’t retain a certain proportion of memory again, allowing Emma and Jude to forge a new temporary history together. Maybe it’s not so much the memory that matters, but rather the feeling — the perpetual moment. The short story ends rather poignantly: One day we won’t be strangers to each other. We’ll only be new.

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