A troubled teenage girl finds her voice in standup comedy
Dir: James Gardner. UK. 2018. 101mins
A young woman with an unhappy home life finds an unlikely outlet for her angst in Jellyfish, an affecting, delicate but familiar coming-of-age drama. Newcomer Liv Hill gives a performance full of repressed frustration as a teenager who discovers she may have a gift for caustic stand-up comedy, complemented by Sinéad Matthews’ agreeably exasperating turn as an unreliable, manic-depressive mother. But the film’s kitchen-sink miserablism ends up feeling a little pat, reducing pathos to predictable plot points.
While Jellyfish’s narrative arc has conventional contours, there are still tender and touching moments
Making its world premiere at Tribeca, the feature directorial debut of co-writer James Gardner should see festival play and theatrical distribution, despite the lack of big names in the cast. But commercial prospects look to be only modest for this small-scale character study.
Hill plays Sarah, a 15-year-old who has to care for her younger twin siblings and a mother, Karen (Matthews), who can barely pull herself out of bed. Mocked at her school for her lower-working-class roots and forced to take a soul-killing gig at an arcade — where she provides handjobs to some of the patrons for extra cash — Sarah is encouraged by her teacher, Mr. Hale (Cyril Nri), to try stand-up, which he believes could help the young woman express her pent-up disillusionment.
Gardner presents Sarah’s world unromantically, focusing on the relationship between her and Karen, whose emotional issues keep her from being any kind of parent. To be sure, there’s cliché in the characters’ dynamic — Sarah has to play the adult around her childlike mother — but the actors bring nuance to their scenes, illustrating how Karen both relies on and resents her eldest daughter’s maturity and dependability.
Jellyfish has more difficulty creating a compelling environment around Sarah. Whether it’s her interactions with her tough-love mentor or occasional scenes that depict her hard-knock existence — Sarah has to worry about keeping the lights on and the kids fed — the film has clear compassion for its heroine, but doesn’t do enough to make her admittedly heart-breaking plight significantly different than myriad comparable ones shown in similar dramas. Even Sarah’s progressively worsening circumstance seems preordained rather than wholly organic.
A possible twist to this commonplace narrative is the introduction of Sarah’s burgeoning interest in stand-up comedy. Early on, Jellyfish hints that this going-nowhere teen has finally found her voice, showing brief scenes of her writing down material that, presumably, will be part of an act she’ll present at a future school event. But Gardner and co-writer Simon Lord unsuccessfully integrate Sarah’s potential artistic blossoming into the film, setting expectations for her big third-act stage performance that fails to be as funny or illuminating as the build-up has suggested.
But while Jellyfish’s narrative arc has conventional contours, there are still tender and touching moments. Hill, previously seen in the BBC series Three Girls, provides Sarah with all the requisite adolescent misanthropy but then undercuts that sullenness with a surprising warmth and sensitivity. (Additionally, Sarah has a tremendous resourcefulness: The movie demonstrates how some men view her as merely a sex object — a situation that, in one memorable sequence, she craftily turns to her advantage.)
In comparison to her subtler co-star, Matthews forcefully reveals the anguish beneath Karen’s violent mood swings, cluing us in that, deep down, the character knows how thoroughly hellish she makes Sarah’s life. There’s real feeling coursing through Jellyfish, even if its insights aren’t particularly trenchant.
Production companies: Nik Holttum Productions, Lemonworld, Bankside Films
International sales: Bankside Films, firstname.lastname@example.org
Producers: Nikolas Holttum, James Gardner
Screenplay: James Gardner, Simon Lord
Production design: Ariadne Bicknell
Editing: Sian Clarke
Cinematography: Peter Riches
Music: Victor Hugo Fumagalli
Cast: Liv Hill, Sinéad Matthews, Cyril Nri, Angus Barnett, Tomos Eames