BAFTA nominated by fourteen, Liv Hill continues her path to stardom in James Gardner’s bleak but deeply affecting feature debut. A kitchen sink drama in the vogue of Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake and, more recently, Mark Gillis’ Sink, Jellyfish boasts an impressive authenticity in its handling of knotty upsets and great resonance in its storytelling. The viewing may be grim but the reality is much worse.
Having stunned in BBC drama Three Girls, Hill again plays a girl here for whom life has yet to give a break. Whilst vulnerability screams from Sarah Taylor’s young face, school uniform and soft voice, this is cruelly juxtaposed to the blue vocabulary she is forced to dish out in near-constant self-defence. At school, Sarah has no friends. At home, her mother’s debilitating bi-polar condition has reversed their parental relationship, meaning that it is Sarah who handles the bills and feeds her young siblings with the wage she earns from a tawdry job in a local arcade.
As settings go, Margate is nothing to write home about but, with the threat of repossession looming over the Taylor household, it’s all they’ve got. In a bid to make ends meet, street smart Sarah is forced to offer hand jobs to middle aged men in dodgy alleyways. If this all sounds miserable, it’s only a halfway successful representation of Sarah’s day to day life.
There is, yet, a glimmer of hope amid the Margate coastal fog. Vulnerable to the eye, Sarah responds to those who come too close with a deadly sting, much like the gelatinous titular sea creature. Her poisonous attack is by tongue, rather than tentacle, and in the form of comic, fowl mouthed, repartee. Spying hitherto untapped – nor acknowledged by any other – potential, Sarah’s drama teacher Mr Hale (Cyril Nri) suggests she takes up stand-up: ‘I want this to be a priority for you’. In a vein not so far removed from Adrian Shergold’s Funny Cow, Sarah finds herself inspired to draw on her own traumas for comedy. Hers is, by no means, a straightforward journey – ‘what have you got to laugh about?’ caws her mother at one point – and neither should audiences expect a wholeheartedly happy ending.
Only very occasionally does Jellyfish betray itself as being the inaugural entry in career, for Gardner, that looks set to grow from strength to strength. His script, co-written with Simon Lord, is a tight construction and balances sparks of destructive power with quieter, more touching moments. Whilst Gardner responds to one particularly devastating twist by shakily fleeing for an exit, in a subtler, lovelier scene he captures the moment Sarah constructs her first joke in the mirror of the school bathroom she has just stormed into. There is tremendous insight too in Gardner’s handling of the struggles faced by those forced, by circumstance, to care for loved ones with mental health illnesses. Sinead Matthews is caustically brilliant as Karen Taylor and Gardner does well to inject nuance into the ebbs and flows of the mother-daughter relationship. Black comedy pervades scenes in which Sarah berates her mother’s childlike behaviour but fragmentation is a constant threat.
So high are the emotional stakes in Jellyfish that it is somewhat remarkable that Gardner was able to find a young performer with strength enough to carry them. In Hill, the production have found that rare needle in a haystack. For one so young, her comic timing is exquisite, dramatic weight compelling and capacity to stir heartbreak unforgiving. And that’s all in the theatrical climax alone. It is, however, the earnestness Hill brings to her role that really stands out. If, at times, the plot dynamics of the film fail to entirely ring true, this is never for want of Hill’s profound honesty.
Gardner has spoken of his desire that Jellyfish might inspire change in the UK’s response to the sufferings of the poor, ill and mistreated in our country. By the credits to his film roll, your support for the cause will likely be rousing.