Following the tragic death of Robin Williams, much ink was spilled on the link between comedy and depression - and specifically, whether stand up performers are more prone to mental health problems than people in other professions. It’s telling that in the years since this became a mainstream discussion, small screen comedies have become more introspective. Shows like Bojack Horseman examine the mental states of their characters as much as they focus on telling jokes, while on the stage, the most acclaimed stand up performers (such as Hannah Gadsby) have eschewed the pretence of comedy altogether, for personal spoken word performances centred on past trauma.
Jellyfish, the feature debut of director James Gardner, approaches this topic from an alternate angle, positioning itself as an origin story for a teenage girl who discovers she has a talent for comedy - even though laughter is scarce in her personal life. Of course, her debut as a comedian takes a firm backseat to the traumas of her home life, which Gardner depicts unflinchingly albeit mercifully free of exploitation. It’s not a funny movie, nor is the climactic stand up performance his young protagonist gives a perfectly realised comedy routine. Instead, it’s a dissection of how people with a gift for comedy can use dark jokes to process their traumas, and attempt to rationalise their suffering by framing it in the form of a gag. Gardner’s film is difficult to watch due to how it takes this concept to its logical extreme, but is inarguably a perfectly realised social realist work that feels like an unlikely Ken Loach reimagining of a Judd Apatow movie.
Sarah (Liv Hill) is a 15 year old girl forced into an unimaginable corner. She has to take care of her younger siblings because her mother is bed bound by depression, and is the only person in the family bringing in any money - both from her job at a seaside arcade, and by performing sexual acts for cash. Her school life is also miserable; she’s friendless, and her abrasive personality has her labelled as an outsider. One day, her performing arts teacher (Cyril Nri) recognises her talent for making other students laugh due to her power of the insult, and recommends writing a standup routine to be performed at a talent show. Eventually, Sarah commits to it, but is thrown off track when discovering her mum hasn’t been signing on to receive benefits, putting her in a position where she will have to do anything to raise money to keep the family home.
Although this was in production after that film’s premiere in 2017, it’s hard to shake the inevitable comparisons with Funny Cow, another social realist drama about a female standup pursuing a career in comedy, and how this coincides with an abusive home life. The main difference between the two, however, is that the nameless character played by Maxine Peake in that comedic origin story was drawn to be unlikeable - an especially misjudged decision considering the visceral depictions of abuse she suffered at home. Liv Hill’s Sarah Taylor is similarly complex, a young woman who doesn’t suffer fools gladly and won’t hold back on telling you what she really thinks about you. But she’s more thoughtfully depicted as a victim of circumstance, somebody who has to put on a tough facade in order to deal with being both a parental figure to her siblings, and as the only responsible member of her family. She’s not a caricature, and the film doesn’t play out like the stereotypical “poverty porn” you’d expect from any filmmaker trying to imitate Loach.
The film’s subject matter is increasingly harrowing, but Gardner manages to touch on taboo subjects while refraining from exploitation - which is to be expected from a director who previously made a melancholic short film about a Gary Glitter tribute act. His film is suitably hard to watch, but the anguish is captured largely through performances, not via clinical depictions of the various horrors Sarah has to contend with. Liv Hill, in a towering lead performance, manages to sell the tonal tightrope walk that oscillates between hard-edged insult comedy one minute, to a realistically drawn depiction of being responsible for a parent’s mental health issues the next. Like Sarah’s approach to comedy, his film takes no prisoners and forces us to contend with social issues that will leave audiences uncomfortable.
Q&A’s for Jellyfish with the cast and director will be held on the following dates.
- Rio Dalston / Wednesday 12th Feb
- Picturehouse Central / Friday 15th Feb