The Movie Waffler New Release Review - JELLYFISH | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - JELLYFISH

jellyfish film review
A troubled teen finds an escape from her life through stand-up comedy.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: James Gardner

Starring: Liv Hill, Sinead Matthews, Cyril Nri, Angus Barnett, Tomos Eames, Frankie Boyle

jellyfish film poster

Of all the art forms, perhaps only comedy has retained a standing as a form of expression which matters to audiences. Unless it’s some kids mouthing off on Youtube about being in gangs and subsequently being banged up (a reaction which seems to have more to do with a confused reaction to gang culture than silly drill songs), music has no cultural relevance, while literature has retreated into a cult cul-de-sac: is anyone actually having conversations about 'The Milkman'? But people are still talking about comedy. They can’t shut up about it! Making a joke has become explicitly politicised, and the success of a joke is judged not just by how it fulfils its intended purpose (i.e., is it funny?) but whether it is socially acceptable or not. I don’t think anyone could realistically call me, the campest man alive, a champion of the homophobic: but who doesn’t feel for poor old Kevin Hart and his shit jokes of yesteryear being used as a stick to beat him with? You hear about Konstantin Kisin being asked to sign a ‘behavioural agreement’ before a show, which, Leviticus style intensity, outlined exactly what he could or could not make jokes about. I mean, it's arguable that Kisin’s experience was isolated but then there’s the way that the art form has mutated to accommodate this parti pris mode of address: witness Hannah Gadsby’s feted 'Nanette', which attempts to make the audience laugh in order to then make them feel bad for laughing. And at the start of the Edinburgh festival, the director of comedy awards reportedly looked forward to 'comedy’s future in the woke world'; come on, what does that even mean?

Like a good cry or sexual attraction, a giggle is something involuntary, a glorious reminder of what it is to be human. And if laughter is the best medicine, then it's also the best armour too. The ability to laugh at circumstances, to laugh at ourselves, to simply laugh is divine, and perhaps it shouldn’t be subject to sanctions.

jellyfish film review

Which brings us to James Gardner’s impressive debut Jellyfish, wherein a young carer in run down Margate discovers a knack for stand-up comedy. It’s broken Britain bingo in the film’s opening montage of tower-blocks, overcast beaches and the magistrates court, with these unfortunate circumstances an adjectival home to lead character, 15-year-old Sarah (Liv Hill - incredible!), who barely manages to juggle being a full time carer for her bi-polar mum and two younger siblings, while working as a cleaner at a sea front amusement arcade and sporadically attending college. As a side line, Sarah also sometimes goes behind the bins round the back of the puggys with the occasional fat old punter, who she then masturbates for much needed cash…

Yes, Jellyfish is grim, and duly mines the stereotypical aspects of the contemporary British social drama for more misery. The nominal villains are property developers who are gentrifying Margate, along with a hard-line soash, while the good guys are represented by Sarah’s salt of the earth drama teacher (Cyril Nri), a figure of male authority who alone spots and nurtures Sarah’s comedy skills.

jellyfish film review

While the general circuitry of the narrative may seem over-familiar, Jellyfish is electrified by the simply incredible presence of its lead, which is easily the most thrilling performance of the year so far. At times, Jellyfish runs the risk of absurdity, of over-egging its already rotten pudding with bleaker and yet more unpalatable ingredients (SPOILER ALERT we move towards a harrowing rape in the final act, which besmirches the pacing of the film, and veers unpleasantly close to Socio-Exploitation SPOILER ENDS), but the amazing Liv Hall makes what could be unconvincingly dreary into completely credible and exciting drama.

After a stand out scene where Sarah roasts her dickish classmate (think the alacrity of the Crazy 88’s scene in Kill Bill but with witty barbs instead of swordplay) her teacher recommends her some stand ups to catch up with (an obvious list, including comedy’s most overrated man Bill Hicks, of course: like he ever said anything a 15-year-old prostitute could relate to). Is it likely that teenage Sarah has never watched stand up before, such is the visibly Damascene moment she experiences when subsequently watching a Frankie Boyle routine on the youtubes? She’s never seen a comic turn, yet she understands a joke about an '80s cartoon character (a Thundercat) raping Piers Morgan… I dunno. Likewise, the plot build up towards the big show at the Theatre Royal, which is made clear to be the film’s likely climax from the off, inopportunely reminded me of the will-they-wont-they-pull-it-off theatrics of the Nativity films, a far remove from the polemical aspirations of Jellyfish.

jellyfish film review

While the film’s themes of how comedy can redeem, how laughter can re-orientate self-esteem and how an oblique reassessment of failing fortunes can lead to self-actualisation are sincere, it is nonetheless unlikely that Sarah would develop the mad skills of a stand up at the very top of her game by the end of the film (in between everything else she has on her plate), as we are led to hope she will. But, then, solely due to the boundless talent of the actor playing her, we can believe that she just might. In Jellyfish comedy is a raw tool of survival, where being ‘woke’ is a luxury far from Sarah’s immediate concerns, and her jokes, which confront her experiences, are a form of expression that matters and abides far beyond chintzy cultural approvals.

Jellyfish is in UK cinemas February 15th.

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