James Gardner (director)
08 February 2019 (released)
04 February 2019
A windswept, out-of-season Margate provides the backdrop for Jellyfish, James Gardner’s debut feature about a teenage girl who, against the odds of a messy home life, discovers she has a talent for stand-up comedy.
Jellyfish follows fifteen year old Sarah Taylor, who is struggling to cope with being the primary carer of her two younger siblings and her own mother, whose poor mental health has rendered her incapable of looking after anyone, including herself.
Bullied at school for being poor and chippy, it ironically ends up being the place that saves her. Drama teacher, Mr Hale, is her saviour, skilfully played by Cyril Nri. Sarah’s relationships with other key characters are cleverly woven throughout the film. Gardner has an eye for human behaviour taking in - the good, the bad and the downright nasty.
Co-written by Gardner and Simon Lord, the scripting feels organic and naturalistic, enabling the action to slide between tragedy and comedy with ease. Frankie Boyle is Sarah’s stand-up guru, so it’s no surprise her gags are going to be edgy, and in light of her personal circumstances, it’s what makes her routine believable.
In-between the dark comedy and bleaker moments, there are also enjoyable light-touches around the drama lessons, and Nri’s performance in particular, help punctuate the narrative with a bit of levity.
A relative newcomer to screen acting, Liv Hill takes the lead role. Hill’s portrayal of a teenager getting pummelled by home, school, work and life - is impressive. With her character’s daily commitments to other people often overlapping, she is adept at showing how fragile Sarah’s existence really is, and the heaviness of her responsibilities bleed onto the screen.
Sinéad Matthews is terrific as her chaotic, manically depressive mother. It is also a heart-breaking portrait of the unswerving loyalty children have to dysfunctional parents and the lengths they will go to, to keep the family together.
The storyline between Sarah and her amusement arcade boss, Vince (Angus Barnett), provide a satisfying strand of dramatic tension. From the off there is an undercurrent of uneasiness around the employer-employee relationship, and their scenes together vividly show how the lives of people with few choices, can quickly spiral out of control.
There are a few common-place sequences that crop up, such as a train station scene where a character must decide whether to stay in Margate or leave, and also the use of location montages. Whilst these aren’t original filmic devices, they are perfectly well executed here.
To the film makers’ credit, their micro-budget isn’t evident on screen. All of the settings dovetail with the story and the characters’ lives very well. From the amusement arcade to the school, to the family flat – they all resonate as realistic manifestations of the protagonist’s small world.
A powerful, must-see first feature that blends potent drama, with humour and hope. Yet, the film’s biggest achievement must be getting audiences thinking about the real-life Sarah Taylors out there, long after the cinema lights have gone up.