In a year where we've been inundated with bombastic and populist films like Avengers: Endgame and Godzilla: King of the Monsters, smaller independent films continue to struggle to find an audience and outlet for unique and original stories. Jellyfish is a significant and memorable departure from this template. The Margate-set feature attempts to wring comedy from despair in this impressive low budget hyper-realist drama.
The film is an astounding directorial debut by James Gardner - working from his and Simon Lord's script - appears to have a clear visual style already. The patience and restraint shown throughout the film is reminiscent of a more established and experienced filmmaker, with scenes allowed to develop and “breathe” without any moment feeling rushed or lost in unnecessary exposition. Peter E. Riches' cinematography captures both the banality and beauty of real life in breathtaking clarity, but it is Liv Hill, who is utterly mesmerising as the 15 year-old protagonist, Sarah Taylor.
Sarah has been burdened with the almost insurmountable responsibility of caring for her two younger siblings Marcus (Henry Lile) and Lucy (Jemima Newman). The teenager is the family's sole-provider due to the debilitating mental health and irresponsible behaviour of the children's mother Karen (Sinead Matthews). Sarah's dire and unsupportive environment leads her to make decisions that leave her increasingly isolated, vulnerable and at the mercy of predators.
The single exception to this is her dedicated drama teacher Mr. Hale, played by the ever dependable Cyril Nri, who sees through the defensive foul-mouth of the struggling teen. Through him, Sarah is exposed to to the rapier wit of stand-up comedians like George Carlin, Richard Pryor and, in particular, Frankie Boyle. Sarah's immediate attraction to the razor sharp comedy brings her temporary respite and focus, while her complicated life continues to spiral out of her control. Until only the complete desertion and abdication of all responsibility seems to be the only way out.
Hollywood would have sanitised the third act of Jellyfish into a clear cut resolution for Sarah being rescued from her devastating family life, victory over her bullies and a successful career as a comedian. To Gardner's credit, he steers clear of this unrealistic and superficial impulse. What we have instead is a more profound and endearing conclusion that remains believable to the struggles of the characters. An inevitable truth and a realistic beauty.