Written by: James Gardner and Simon Lord
Although the British film industry is often lost in the bright, escapist colours of James Bond and Harry Potter, the gritty, grey social dramas find a way to shine through. The latter has been defining British cinema since the ‘50s, and shows no sign of stopping.
Jellyfish, the debut from director James Gardner, visits the seaside town of Margate in which a frustrated, 15-year-old young carer finds some solace in stand-up comedy.
Sarah (Liv Hill) takes her little siblings to school, works a job at the local arcade, gives handjobs to old men for extra cash, and endlessly tries to get her mentally ill mother (Sinéad Matthews) out of bed and into work. During a Performing Arts lesson, she eloquently insults the other students and the teacher Adam (Cyril Nri) encourages her to write a stand-up show.
Sarah (Liv Hill) is encouraged to write her own stand-up show
Sarah’s an excellent carer for her little brother and sister, but the world is often against her. She has to endure hardship every day, and some of her trials are difficult to watch. The gross glances and creeping hands from horny men are especially distressing.
But Sarah’s venom is exciting and wondrous, made into so much more than teenage moping. Gardner and Simon Lord’s writing is strongest when Sarah’s humour mixes with the darkness of the situation. When an estate agent takes her home, with the assumption of sex, he tries to seduce her: ‘you’re gonna think you’ve won the pleasure lottery’. And Sarah, barely missing a beat, replies: ‘I’m not old enough to win the pleasure lottery… I’m not even old enough to play the National Lottery’.
These lines are explosively funny and constructed with such vigour. There’s a tendency in social realism, especially in Ken Loach films, to avoid humour at all costs – but even though Gardner clearly takes a lot from Loach (I, Daniel Blake in particular), he knows the importance of having a good laugh.
Sinéad Matthews (playing Sarah's mother) fires up every scene she's in
The camera rarely leaves Liv Hill (Three Girls, The Little Stranger), placing a lot of harsh pressure on the young actor’s shoulders (16 at time of shooting). But she pulls it off, capturing Sarah’s sadness and aggression with naturalistic delivery – often producing nostalgic teenage whines when articulating a thought or constructing a joke.
Sinéad Matthews, playing Sarah’s mostly absent mother Karen, fires up every scene she’s in. Her dramatic mood-swings, a result of her mental illness, can switch from complete contentment to endless misery – even at the smallest gesture. Matthews tackles this part well, Karen never appearing as a neglectful monster but as someone who needs help and can’t afford it. There’s so much to hate about what she makes Sarah go through, but it’s hard not to feel sorry for her.
Jellyfish is a painful portrait of a young carer, possessing that realist hopelessness which leaves everyone with undying despair – but not without a joke or two to laugh at. And although Gardner wields Loach’s simplicity, there are small and lovely areas of experimentation comparable to the stylistic storytelling of Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen. But Sarah’s situation isn’t to be lifted into bright colours or escapist endings – she’s stuck where she is, and we have to accept that.
Jellyfish is released in UK cinemas on Friday 15th February
On 15 Feb 19, TIMES VARY
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