Sometime a film comes out of leftfield, unexpectedly accosting you. James Gardner’s Jellyfishis one such movie. Authentic, credible but tough to watch, it’s hard to know if it would be the same experience without Liv Hill, a rising English star last seen in Lenny Abrahamson’s Gothic mystery The Little Stranger. Here she plays the lead, Sarah, a schoolgirl living in Margate with her two younger siblings and fragile mother Karen (Sinead Matthews), who – despite her best intentions – appears entirely incapable of looking after their family.
Indeed, Sarah is the glue holding this unit together. She picks up her brother and sister from school, cooks their food and even works in a local arcade to pay the bills. Worse still, she takes middle-aged male customers around the back of the arcade, where they pay for sexual favours. At school, she’s taunted by others but Sarah is quick with her wit and her fists. Only her drama teacher (Cyril Nri) takes an interest, forcing her to channel her frustrations into developing a stand-up routine for a school talent show.
When she heads to the library to watch a Frankie Boyle routine on YouTube, it’s the first time we see Sarah smile, and no wonder. Hers is a pretty bleak existence, in a stultifying seaside town caught between poverty-stricken locals and wealthy DFLs (Down From London), who are snapping up property for a song. But it’s back home where it really hurts. With her family due to be evicted, Sarah is forced to find money any way she can, even blackmailing an arrogant estate agent she picks up in a club.
Hill is simply sensational in the film, showing both Sarah’s rock-hard façade and the overwhelming vulnerability she carries inside her. The finale, at the talent contest, as she braves a hostile audience to deliver a routine Boyle himself would be proud of, is jaw-dropping in its emotional rawness. Like a south coast Shane Meadows, Gardner wrings everything from his cast, knowing exactly when to hold back and when to throw his punches. This is a highly impressive first feature, one that really resonates.
Jellyfish opens on 15 February. For more details, visit: Find out more here.
1. All images stills from Jellyfish.