A film in which the lead performance is far more distinguished than the movie itself.


James Gardner and Liv Hill 


Set in Margate, Jellyfish is the feature debut of James Gardner who is both director and co-writer. However, the name to note is that of Liv Hill who plays the film's fifteen-year-old heroine, Sarah Taylor. Hill filmed Jellyfish in 2016 when she herself was just sixteen and she went on to take a supporting role in The Little Stranger released last year. But it is Jellyfish which, by putting her screen centre in a role that she was born to play, reveals her true potential. Her performance here shows how skilled she is, but Jellyfish does more than that: it confirms beyond doubt that, despite her tender years, Liv Hill is already one of those people loved by the camera.


This revelation of star quality makes Jellyfish a film to see, but I wish that I could be more enthusiastic about the movie itself. It comes across as a work with two distinct aspects that never fuse convincingly. On the one hand, it is a downbeat drama strongly reminiscent of the 2018 release Two for Joy: both works feature a lone mother unable to look after her children and thus putting them in a situation that makes their lives bleak. Sarah's mother, Karen (Sinéad Matthews), has a bipolar disorder and it is Sarah who looks after her two young siblings and struggles to keep the family solvent by working in an arcade. In scenes even more grim than those in Two for Joy, she endures sexual exploitation for cash and eventually suffers being raped.


It seems that some viewers see this as a kind of black comedy growing out of the fact that the screenplay takes the bleakness of Sarah's life to such extremes. It could be too that the film's excessive if not unrealistic use of strong language appeals to those who find obscene words a comic delight. But Hill makes everything feel so real that I for one never wanted to laugh. Yet that did not mean that the film really worked for me: that was partly because at times I found Gardner as a debut director stressing both camera movement and editing to the point where they rob the film of its natural flow (it's also the case that when Gardner pays homage to Hitchcock's Frenzy it seems terribly heavy-handed). 


But the main problem is that Jellyfish tries to combine its relentless view of a dysfunctional family with the notion that Sarah can find hope in the possibility of becoming a stand-up comic as envisaged by her school's drama teacher (Cyril Nri). There would be nothing wrong with that if this side of the tale were handled with the same realism as the rest, but it's not. Again and again the details lack conviction as does the climax when, although having been dismissed from the group, Sarah turns up on cue to gatecrash the end of term showcase being presented at the local theatre. Not even Hill can make this ring true, but on the other hand none of the weaknesses so apparent in the movie can undermine the realisation that Liv Hill's debut is one of the most striking of recent years.




Cast: Liv Hill, Sinéad Matthews, Cyril Nri, Angus Barnett, Tomos Eames, Lauran Taylor Griffin, Henry Life, Jemima Newman, Victoria Alcock, Ria Zmitrowicz, Helen Kennedy, Peter Picton, Mark Sangster.


Dir James Gardner, Pro Nikolas Holttum and James Gardner, Screenplay James Gardner and Simon Lord, Ph Peter E. Riches, Pro Des Ariadne Bicknell, Ed Sian Clarke, Music Victor Hugo Fumagalli, Costumes Bronya Arciszewska.


Nik Holttum & Lemonworld/Bankside Films-Republic Film Distribution.
101 mins. UK. 2018. Rel: 15 February 2019. Cert. 15.