A must-see at the current Tribeca Film Festival is James Gardner’s crackerjack feature debut, Jellyfish, with its star-making performance by Liv Hill as Sarah, a down-and-out teen residing in the off-season, seaside town of Margate. Call this Cinema of the Angry Young Woman. Saddled with a bipolar mom and two younger, highly energetic siblings for whom she must care, Sarah is a bit peeved at life. Rightfully though. Think of Tony Richardson’s Taste of Honey (1961) that brought Rita Tushingham as Jo to international attention as the put-upon, wide-eyed, lower-class heroine. The two lasses are soulmates.
Residing nearby a crumbling Coney-Island-like venue, Sarah supports her family with a cleaning job at a local arcade where she adds to her salary by supplying a few hand-jobs to a clientele of unsavories.
Back home she tries cooking for her brother and sister, but the electricity keeps going off so no boiling water. As for taking a shower, the plumbing there is just as temperamental. And forget Mom (a deliciously deplorable Sinéad Matthews). She seldom gets out of bed, which causes her to mess up the benefit checks that pay the rent.
Sarah’s world is clearly imploding, even at school where she’s not an A student and not exactly popular, never having a kind word or glance for any of her peers. In fact, she’s the queen of the putdown, a trait which her drama teacher (Cyril Nri) feels is worth developing. Why not channel the girl’s acerbic responses to despair into a standup routine?
Some convincing is needed before Sarah takes up pad and pen and starts writing up a few jokes. But before her scathing look at life can get to the stage, the teen’s daily challenges get even grimmer, leading to a devastatingly unforgettable finale. Imagine an intermittently despondent Lolita aping Lenny Bruce. Sarah’s jocular yet painful “triumph” is a triumph for current indie cinema.