Tribeca 2018: ‘Jellyfish’ Is a Valiant First Effort for James Gardner

Guru Ramanathan
Liv Hill in "Jellyfish."

If one were to only judge James Gardner’s feature debut “Jellyfish” on its synopsis, their initial assumptions may betray them. The film’s dramatic elements overshadow its attempt to be comedic, but prove Gardner’s potential as a new voice in film.

The British film, which had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 20, revolves around Sarah Taylor (Liv Hill), a teenager who has to maintain the stability of her family, often channelling her frustrations into crude humor against school bullies. Aimless in life, Sarah is encouraged by her teacher to take up stand-up comedy for an upcoming talent showcase. Although one would expect a balance of humor and drama, “Jellyfish” is a mostly engaging film that carries on depressingly, meditating on the need to balance one’s personal interests when carrying the weight of the world on one’s shoulders.

Everyone depends on Sarah: her two young siblings and manic-depressive mother, her teacher, her boss at the arcade she works at, even the creepy arcade customers that pay her for handjobs. In full domino effect, once one aspect of Sarah’s life stumbles, everything else begins to topple, too.

“Jellyfish” hinges on the audience suspending its disbelief on the impeccable timing of Sarah’s life deteriorating all at once, but Gardner does a mostly good job navigating this treacherous balance. The narrative’s main faults are towards the end, punctuated by a sexual assault scene that is blatantly unnecessary and could have been removed entirely.

Gardner’s insistence on making Sarah a budding comedian is overshadowed by everything else happening in her life. It seems reasonable that she would have little time writing a stand-up routine, so why have one at all? It is certainly not adding anything to the story since Gardner only devotes a few forgettable scenes toward the stand-up, so the viewer is barely subjected to her comedic growth and the climax has no real catharsis.

But, much like how Sarah is carrying her family on her shoulders, Hill bravely powers the film on her talent, overpowering the likes of Cyril Nri and Sinead Matthew. Hill had trouble with her jokes, partly due to the writing and hit-or-miss comedic timing. When she has to tell jokes, they often come across forced and gratuitously crude. But Hill sold everything else: the happy facade Sarah has to maintain in front of her siblings, the bullying, the frustration of dealing with her mother, the trauma of working at the arcade. She has strong dramatic chops, and hopefully “Jellyfish” shows that she is an actress looking to stay — even if comedy isn’t her strong suit.

2017 was a year of incredible directorial debuts –– “Jellyfish” demonstrates the challenge of getting it perfectly right on the first try. Still, Gardner is a promising writer and director who made a competent film which worked well in most aspects, had good performances and was engaging until it sputtered in the last act. With “Jellyfish,” Gardner shows his potential to make a standout hit.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 30 print edition. Email Guru Ramanathan at [email protected]

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