Jellyfish – Review [Tribeca 2018]

Jellyfish is playing at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival. Find screening information HERE.

By I. Simon

Considering that movies like Jellyfish tend to be emotionally manipulative and “inspiring” drivel, it’s so refreshing to see a film of this kind that feels raw every once in a while. Many films like these either tend to gloss over sensitive issues or exploit them to emotionally manipulate their audiences, and any tears that come out of the audiences aren’t earned. That is not the case with James Gardner’s feature debut Jellyfish, which is very raw and sensitive in its portrayal of the film’s protagonist, a victim of abuse. If Jellyfish is a sign of great things to come from Gardner, then I am most certainly looking forward to his career blossoming.

Co-written & directed by James Gardner, and starring Liv Hill (Three Girls), Sinead Matthews (Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice), and Angus Barnett (Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl), Jellyfish follows Sarah Taylor (Liv Hill), a fifteen-year old who is the sole caretaker of her family, including her precocious twin siblings and her depressive mother. In order to make money to take care of her family and put food on the table, Sarah not only has to work, but also occasionally has to unfortunately do more dehumanizing things to make some extra money. Through her frustration, she discovers a potential talent in stand-up comedy.

Gardner’s direction & script, which he co-wrote with Simon Lord, are nothing short of amazing. He gives us a well crafted, realistic, compelling protagonist in Sarah, who can be quick-tempered, but you understand why, and you sympathize with her because you feel her pain and her longing to take care of her family. Gardner also portrays life in this British town in general in a way that feels very raw, and considering that I am an American who has never been to any part of the U.K., it was very heartbreaking to see what Sarah has to go through while living a life there. The film also has its bits of comedy that I found to be amusing, and Gardner manages to balance it all out very well without ever coming off as inconsistent or jarring. Even the dialogue is also genuinely realistic. Every single emotional beat felt truly earned through Gardner’s writing & direction.

The production values of this film are great as well. The locations and sets are all very realistic. The shaky camerawork gives the film a very raw, indie feel (something I’ve actually seen used very well in other films when done right), and it works perfectly here. The editing in the film is pretty tight, and I also liked the score.

With all that said, Jellyfish would not work without the performances, which range from good to really great, most notably Liv Hill’s excellent performance in her first leading role, excellently portraying Sarah’s frustration and pain, but also her strength and her determination to help her family. She nails not only both the subtle moments and the louder moments, but also the small comedic bits as well, and overall gives what is so far one of my favorite leading female performances of 2018. Another notable performance is from Sinead Matthews, who is fantastic as Sarah’s mother, Karen. All of the other performances are enthralling as well. Even the child actors who portray Sarah’s siblings are decent enough.

If there’s any gripe I have with Jellyfish, I do feel that the pacing could’ve been tightened a tad, mainly in the first act. That’s a very minor criticism, though.

Overall, James Gardner has crafted an amazing film in Jellyfish, and shone a light on Liv Hill and the amount of potential that she has as an actress. I hope that Gardner continues to make films, because he shows so much potential to be a genuinely amazing filmmaker. If you’re going to be at Tribeca Film Festival, I highly recommend checking out Jellyfish. I really hope that a distributor picks it up soon, so the world can see this amazing gem.

I give Jellyfish an A.

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[Visit my Letterboxd for more reviews!]

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