Jak sobie pościelesz, tak się wyśpisz (Polish proverb: You reap what you sow)

Becki Wiggett reviews Little Jacob on Netflix UK.

At the beginning of Little Jacob, we are introduced to a man, clearly accustomed to being alone, as he goes about his mundane daily routines in his run-down apartment. Left in silence to observe, we get an insight into his life: drab and monotonous, with an overwhelming sense of emptiness and a strange habit of monitoring the butter dish in his fridge. The confusion builds, resulting in the discovery that someone, a young boy (Jacob), has been living in his apartment un-noticed. 

The two seemingly unrelated characters begin to interact, albeit with few words and in just over an hour, the audience discovers they are more alike than they seem. As we delve into the past, we learn Jacob’s story of loss: the loss of meaning, his connections to the outside world and his grip on reality. 

The film consistently contrasts the isolation felt by young Jacob with his desire to be needed by those around him. We see this most clearly in his social interactions; his close relationship with his grandmother, his desire to belong to a social group with his peers and his helplessness within his family dynamic.

As Jacob’s grandmother loses her sense of self, she shares intense feelings of regret and distress about the past. Jacob listens to her disjointed stories about his father’s childhood, whilst she desperately tries to rely on her procedural memory to return home. This rings true to a wide audience who have experienced loved ones struggling with cognitive difficulties late in life. However, Jacob shows no emotional reaction and shows no interest in talking about his father, yet he still tightly holds onto her hand. There is a palpable contrast between this safe attachment to his grandmother and his strained relationship with his father. 

As time progresses, we see a shift to a more obvious story of neglect, abuse and a struggle of power. We join Jacob learning the tricks of his father’s trade of agriculture through harshly spat demands that encompasses the entirety of their verbal communication. By now he is clearly used to physical punishment, anticipating it as if it’s a daily occurrence. We see his desire to be praised by his father, to be seen, and his father’s lack of interest in him. He watches emotionlessly as his father devotes attention to the farm animals, feeding and caring for them whilst neglecting his own flesh and blood. 

Jacob’s learnt helplessness is influenced by other adults around him, constantly reminding him that he is powerless and deserving of mistreatment. So, when an opportunity occurs to challenge the power dynamic, he takes it. 

This Polish film highlights the importance of safe and stable attachments, the necessity of safeguarding young people and the weight of adverse experiences in childhood. We get insight into a child’s life that is devoid of paternal love, and how this impacts Jacob in later life. 

Whilst the conclusion of the film isn’t completely unexpected, it does invite questions about how we are portraying trauma survivors in the media. Whilst it's important to recognise the social and psychological repercussions of growing up in an abusive environment, it is also detrimental to perpetuate the idea that our fate is purely determined by our childhood experiences. Just because you had a traumatic upbringing does not mean you will continue through life alone, isolated, feeling disconnected from your previous self and filled with regret. However, this is certainly a thought-provoking piece, making the audience question the character's sense of reality and how they have managed to process their troubled pasts. 

- Reviewed by Becki Wiggett BSc (Hons), Reading; SEMH primary educator and Freelance Editor at Psych2Go. E: [email protected].

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