People say that rape jokes can’t be funny.
So says Frankie Boyle in a clip viewed by 15-year-old Sarah (Liv Hill). Whilst attending a performance class – but by no means present – her teacher, Mr Hale (Cyril Nri), suggests stand-up be Sarah’s shtick after witnessing her dress down a bully with a combination of wit and aggression. She cracks a smile at Boyle’s over-the-top retorts to audience members, his name on a list of comedians recommended to her by her teacher, alongside the likes of Bill Hicks and Victoria Wood.
Her disengagement is understandable. At home, she’s the breadwinner for her two younger siblings and unpredictable mother. Suffering from undisclosed mental health issues, her mum flits between a catatonic state of inactivity and child-like enthusiasm. She hasn’t left the house, she hasn’t been signing on, and they’re going to lose the house. So far, so bleak.
The film does nothing for Margate’s tourism industry either. The seaside town is peppered with perverts, paedophiles and predators, some of whom Sarah ‘gives a hand’ for money on the side during shifts at an amusement arcade. They approach her without subtlety, their ongoing arrangement an increasingly habitual part of both their days. The horror is in how little it is framed as horror, as a teenage girl lifelessly tends to a middle-aged man in an alleyway. As the hours pass, Sarah stands amongst the bright lights of slot machines, packed full of money which is just out of reach for a girl and a family desperate for some relief.
“One time, at the end of her tether, she tells her mum she’s so useless they “wouldn’t employ you as a fucking speedbump”. It’s horrible but funny: proof of a creative imagination fuelled by the misery of her situation.”
Comedy is dangled in front of Sarah as that potential relief. Mr Hale tells her that Frankie Boyle channels his anger and frustration into his comedy, taking something destructive and turning it, craftsman-like, into art. One time, at the end of her tether, she tells her mum she’s so useless they “wouldn’t employ you as a fucking speedbump”. It’s horrible but funny: proof of a creative imagination fuelled by the misery of her situation.
Reminders of that miserable situation are everywhere: the power goes off mid-shower, they can’t afford to boil water for noodles, a request for snacks from her younger brother and sister is met with a dumbstruck and sarcastic response. After Sarah comes upon some money, her mum excites the siblings by suggesting a trip to the local funfair. What ought to be a joyous family occasion is instead a source of stress, the freshly earned money needed for rent now to be spent on fairground rides, at the suggestion of someone incapable of parenting.
It’s revealed that the kids have been in care before, and Sarah is doing everything to keep them from going back. Her aversion is left unexplored, but it’s a damning indictment of the care system if her current reality is preferable to what support is being offered. She’s adamant she can provide if given the proper means, the benefits which have been cut off because her mum is too incapacitated to sign on. They literally hide from those who come knocking for an inspection, finding a comfort in sticking together over the alternative – better the devil you know.
“The film lives and dies by Liv Hill; the camera is literally by her side the whole time. It’s a star-making performance, but a gruelling one, with the young actor placed in some horrifying situations.”
The film lives and dies by Liv Hill; the camera is literally by her side the whole time. It’s a star-making performance, but a gruelling one, with the young actor placed in some horrifying situations. One particularly harrowing sequence sees the camera take on a life of its own, director James Gardner choosing to collectively avert our eyes from something that’s bad enough to think about, never mind to witness. The weight of responsibility is clear on Hill’s face – exhausted yet determined – but she carries that responsibility as an actor too, deftly carrying the film from start to finish.
Comedy is all about call-backs. An audience is more likely to laugh when they are part of a joke’s construction – in on a clever piece of comedic structure. When Sarah’s mum tearfully calls herself a ‘fucking speedbump’ it cuts deep. When Sarah starts writing her own material, it forces the people around her to acknowledge the severity of her situation. Her terrible life is ripe for stand-up fodder, conjuring words which clapback against those who demean her and her life. There’s a difference between this young 15-year-old girl and Frankie Boyle, when one has the authority and experience to say what can and cannot be funny.
Hill’s firestarter performance keeps JELLYFISH from becoming unrelentingly depressing, her nature refusing to wither. Much is made of the arts as a haven, where negative thoughts can be therapeutically converted into a product, and the film pushes that hypothesis to breaking point. Particularly at a time when the British arts scene is having to do some soul-searching over how exclusive it is to the middle class, exactly what amount of torture must someone go through to earn their stripes in the name of creative authenticity? It ends, like more heart-warming films do, with a montage of all the locations visited in the film, each one a chapter of something Sarah has survived as much as lived through. A celebration of endurance, maybe, but one which questions just how much people can take.