Jellyfish | Film review by Steve Bennett
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Film review by Steve Bennett

Originally released in 2019, and newly arrived on the BBC iPlayer, this zero-budget indie movie floats the notion of stand-up as a cathartic outlet for a teenager who is otherwise marginalised by a troubled life.

We first meet Sarah Taylor in one of the many neglected corners of Margate’s seafront, enjoying the simple after-school pleasures of just hanging out with her two young siblings. But it soon becomes very apparent that moments of untroubled joy are in short supply in this family, dogged by financial problems and the catastrophically erratic behaviour of their bipolar mother (an excellent Sinead Matthews).

At just 15, Sarah is the one barely holding everything together, caring for the twins, dealing with everything her mother can’t, and bringing in money with a part-time job at a shabby amusement arcade, where she supplements her meagre income by selling hand-jobs to seedy men out back. It’s the sort of remorselessly grim existence you might normally find in Ken Loach’s work.

No one else truly knows what Sarah is going though. She certainly has no friends at school, where she sits as a surly, sarcastic outsider, mocked by the vacuously cool gangs. But when, during one lesson, she verbally lashes back, her drama teacher (Cyril Nri) suggests stand-up might be an outlet and gives her some famous names to study.

She soon finds Frankie Boyle’s vicious nihilism resonates with her own desperate life, and starts scribbling her venomous thoughts in her notebook. But any dreams this might offer an escape from her hopeless situation are frequently dashed by brutal pragmatism.

Novice film-maker James Gardner really puts Sarah through the wringer. Not every plot point is quite credible, but the feeling that there’s no feasible escape for this toughened teenager is believable and overwhelming.

It’s certainly too much so for any sort of Hollywood ending where comedy will lift her out of her desperate situation. In her climactic comedy performance, Sarah shows herself to be instinctively funny, but raw in technique and emotion, distilling the detached invincibility she projects to hide her vulnerabilities into a powerfully mesmerising monologue.

Actors often depict stand-up far too artificially, but this is an authentic tour-de-force for young star Liv Hill, capping a compelling performance on which the success of the whole movie rests.  She is an obvious revelation in this complex role, while over several well-judged scenes Gardner demonstrates an understated flair for the nuances of film-making.

While the film’s downcast realism is its second strongest attribute, after Hill herself, therein also lies the reason why Jellyfish can never quite be a satisfying story. For while her moment in the spotlight brings Sarah some much-needed empowerment, it also brings notoriety and no real respire from her myriad problems.

But that you care so much that she can never escape her lot is testament to the strengths of this impressive calling-card of a film.

Review date: 22 Feb 2021
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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