Jellyfish (3 stars)

Jellyfish

James Gardner's hard-going yet impressive debut has a standout turn from Liv Hill at the fore

Glum yet impressive, Jellyfish is worth watching for the raw and remarkable work of rising star Liv Hill (The Little Stranger, TV's Three Girls). She plays protagonist Sarah Taylor, a curdled and canny 15-year-old. It's a role with range: Sarah's sour and conniving, fiercely loyal and furious, vulnerable and heartbreakingly selfless. It's only when we see her caring for her younger brother and sister (Henry Lile and Jemima Newman), despite her wildly unstable mother (Sinead Matthews), that her spiky personality makes sense. Against all odds, she's trying to keep the family together in their claustrophobic Margate flat.

Jellyfish is James Gardner's directorial debut (from a script co-written with Simon Lord) and he crams the frame with misery. But how could it be otherwise? Hardly a corner of Sarah's day-to-day lacks emotional horror, a situation exacerbated by the misery of perpetual poverty – putting food on the table is near impossible, especially when there's no electricity to cook. Sarah's lowly cleaning job at the local arcade is worsened by an exploitative boss (a great evil role for Angus Barnett). Our young heroine has to be resourceful at bringing in extra cash, so what if it means giving hand-jobs to sleazebag patrons? At least she doesn't make it personal by looking them in the eye.

Blessed relief from all this seaside bleakness comes from Cyril Nri as Mr Hale, Sarah's drama teacher. He's not exactly alive to her domestic plight but is the only person who takes a human interest in the girl and who sees her potential. Nri – best known for his work in TV, including The Bill – is nothing short of exquisite as a one-man cavalry. Without him, we'd be pulled down into the sucking swamp of our protagonist's almost unbearably shit life. It's Mr Hale who encourages Sarah to harness her sarcasm, hatred and frustration into stand-up comedy. Her jokes aren't always funny but their uncomfortable truths are essential to hear.

Selected release from Fri 15 Feb.

Jellyfish

  • 3 stars
  • 15

Sarah (Hill) is a 15-year-old girl whose mother’s mental health problems force her to be the one to keep her family together; then her teacher Mr Hale (Nri) suggests she try stand-up. Glum yet impressive drama, with a raw and remarkable performance from Hill as the angry, sour, vulnerable protagonist.

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