by Fabien Lemercier
- The British director James Gardner shows promising talent with a first film that features some stinging social realism
"Are you looking for something easy?", "Anyone can learn a routine and stick to it, but that's not what we're looking for here. It needs to come from somewhere deeper." It’s with these words, placed in the mouth of one of his main characters, that the British filmmaker James Gardner somehow manages to distil the colour and ambition of Jellyfish, his first feature. The film does admittedly travel the beaten path of a coming-of-age story, but focuses its plot on a teenager and her dysfunctional family against a backdrop of uncompromising social realism (in true Ken Loach style), delving into the daily life of the working class in a seaside city bathed in grey skies and the flashing lights and sounds of arcade games, all while trying to find an original means of escaping the doldrums of life via self-taught stand-up comedy.
Screened in the Playtime programme at the 10th Les Arcs Film Festival, Jellyfish has already garnered numerous awards since its premiere at Tribeca, including at Edinburgh (Best Actress Awards for Liv Hill and Sinéad Matthews), Dinard (four trophies including the Grand Prix, Best Screenplay and Critics' Prize) and Rome (Best Film in the Alice Nella Cittá section). The younger of its two major actresses has won numerous awards, has been nominated for Best Breakthrough Performance at the British Independent Film Awards and has received special mentions at both Dinard and Rome.
"Mum doesn't feel well." At 15, Sarah (Hill) finds herself, as we are soon to discover, with some pretty serious responsibilities, as her mother, Karen (Matthews), practically mute, doesn't seem to leave her bed or the sofa, sitting in front of the television as if she were hypnotised. And as for her father, he doesn’t seem to be on the scene, leaving the teenager entirely responsible for the daily lives of her siblings: her brother, Marcus (Henry Lile) and her sister, Lucy (Jemima Newman), who she must take and collect from primary school, pick up, dress, feed, reassure, etc. As money is tight, Sarah also works part-time at a nursery, where her boss (Angus Barnett) operates shamelessly and where various customers offer her extra cash in exchange for a quick hand job. A precarious existence, which fails to improve when the girl realises that the family owes three months’ rent and that her mother's benefits have been suspended – the latter revealing herself to be bipolar and subject to enthusiastic spending sprees, especially at Dreamland Amusement Park. Grappling with an increasingly serious situation, which she continues to hide from the outside world, Sarah, who is very strong-willed, is encouraged (a lot) by her drama teacher (Cyril Nri) to pursue her potential in stand-up comedy. She begins to write a skit while struggling desperately to keep her family afloat. But the boat starts to sink, and the world is a cruel place...
Beyond the film's indisputable general acting quality (and by proxy excellent direction of the film’s cast, which includes numerous novices) and a plot that fails (as is often the case with first films) to pick up the pace somewhat in its home stretch, Jellyfish is a testament to James Gardner's filmmaking talent, demonstrating a real sense of atmosphere and accuracy, and a promising mastery of shots, light (Peter Riches is the film’s director of photography) and music (composed by Victor Hugo Fumagalli). An emerging talent, whose career development we await with eager curiosity.
(Translated from French)
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