‘Jellyfish’: Film Review | Tribeca 2018

Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival
Too much sting.
4/20/2018

Kitchen sink meets insult comedy in James Gardner’s grotesquely grim feature debut.

If British teenager Sarah Taylor’s (Liv Hill) life was a movie, its relentless ghastliness might make even a seasoned miserabilist like Ken Loach say, “C’mon, now.” She’s the primary caretaker in an economically and emotionally depressed family comprising a bipolar mother (Sinead Matthews) and two sprightly siblings (Henry Lile and Jemima Newman), who are still too young to grasp the bleakness of their situation. When she’s not mouthing off at school and driving her drama teacher, Adam (Cyril Nri), up the wall, she’s working at a low-rent games parlor in her seaside hometown of Margate, where her boss (Angus Barnett) treats her with absolute condescension and she makes some quid on the side masturbating the older and obese male clientele in a back alley.

Whatever pays the bills — and there are plenty of those to deal with, along with a cessation of monthly benefits when mom forgets to sign all the necessary paperwork. Also on Sarah’s horizon are the impromptu seduction/conning of a lecherous local real estate magnate (Tomos Eames) and another gruesomely solicited sexual encounter that quickly becomes rape — a sequence that director/co-writer James Gardner and cinematographer Peter Riches strangely choose to film like the famed offscreen murder in Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972), the camera slowly backtracking from the scene of the crime to the hustling and bustling street outside. All of this… and school assignments, too! Chief among them the sketch of some kind or other that Sarah is supposed to perform in Adam’s class as an onstage end-of-term exam. 

It’s here that Jellyfish distinguishes itself from your run-of-the-mill kitchen-sink melodrama. Sarah’s circumstances are so ridiculously dire that there’s little left to do but laugh at them. And even if Adam doesn’t know the full terrible extent of his pupil’s day-to-day existence, he can see there’s something to harness in the dogged derision she spews at everyone around her. He drops some names — Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Joan Rivers — and tells her to prepare a stand-up act as her final project.

This is something new: the dour verisimilitude of social-realist cinema spiced with a heavy helping of anything-goes insult comedy. For a good while it makes for a potent mix, as if Mike Leigh decided to collaborate with Sarah Silverman or Amy Schumer on a piece of sociopolitical agitprop. Everything that happens to Sarah has the potential to be remade from the dismal to the droll, so it becomes like watching a researcher gather notes from the field. How can this character, whom newcomer Hill plays with an endearing mix of guff, grit and gloominess, turn the horrors of her life into trenchant punchlines? A YouTube video Sarah watches of Scottish comic Frankie Boyle finding the funny in sexual assault suggests the provocative places the film might go. 

In the end, however, Gardner sticks to the story’s preposterously sober arc. Even when Sarah does get up on that stage, her routine is realistically raw, with some punches landed and other jabs almost but not quite there. Her comedy becomes a confessional, and it’s clearly meant to elicit tears or at least a heartbroken head nod. It feels like a missed opportunity, though, as if the scales have tipped too far away from the fantasy of art as a transgressive outlet toward the no-less pernicious notion that it’s impossible for the down and out to transcend their circumstances even as they continue living them. Sarah’s existence finally becomes what it always was — a movie, and all the worse for it. 

Production company: Nik Holttum Productions
Cast: Liv Hill, Sinead Matthews, Cyril Nri, Angus Barnett
Director: James Gardner
Screenwriters: James Gardner, Simon Lord
Producers: James Gardner, Nikolas Holttum

Cinematographer: Peter Riches
Editor: Sian Clarke
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Viewpoints)

101 minutes