A bitter illustration of a precarious life

Wendy Lloyd on James Gardner's 'Jellyfish'.

Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake invigorated public debate about austerity and welfare cuts, with the film still referenced in Parliament as a cautionary tale for Universal Credit. Here, director and co-writer James Gardner’s Jellyfish considers the welfare equation with the added crippling issue of mental health, in a film that might arguably be considered a companion piece to Loach’s BAFTA award winner.

Liv Hill delivers a visceral performance as 15-year-old Sarah, who we meet ferrying her young twin siblings to school by bike, then persuading them to make do with a cold, uncooked, packet noodle dinner when the electricity runs out. There appears to be no adult presence at home, and Sarah seems capable if beleaguered. However, navigating her peers and school-day soon reveals a young woman at breaking point; be it rebuffing her inevitable bullies, or talking back to her understanding yet conflicted drama teacher, played Cyril Nri. 

Thus Gardner cleverly establishes Sarah’s character before we’re finally introduced to mother Karen. Mum has bipolar disorder, and Sinead Matthews’ committed performance encapsulates the highs, lows, insecurity and unpredictability associated with the condition. Importantly, Karen’s behaviour and the family’s history fleshes out not only her identity as a struggling single mum unwittingly emotionally blackmailing her daughter, but also Sarah’s naïve rationale for keeping the family together, despite the impossible toll on her and her siblings. 

Jellyfish provides a bitter illustration of Judith Butler’s ‘Precarious Life', as expounded upon so powerfully in her 2004 book of the same name: Sarah’s carer responsibilities alongside school and a part time job are unsustainable, whilst Karen is utterly incapable of adhering to welfare system requirements with such chronic mental health. Paying the rent and keeping the lights on is therefore a daily struggle. Additionally, Sarah’s increasingly desperate efforts to make ends meet make her dangerously vulnerable to the men who pay her: a minor, for illicit sexual favours. Power relations inevitably loom large here, with Sarah’s seedy boss also willing to perceive her vulnerability as an opportunity to exert his power, ultimately via physical violence.

This ‘precariousness’ is also encapsulated in the film’s location of Margate, a battleground of rising inequality. When Sarah encounters a posturing estate agent, who boasts obliviously of vast profits from his property development for the 'DFL' (Down From London) types who are gentrifying parts of the town, she has a seemingly justifiable opportunity to gain at least some financial redress for the shitty hand she’s been dealt. But there’s little to celebrate as we anxiously witness Sarah embarking on yet another precarious mission purely because she’s run out of options.

The one option Sarah does have comes courtesy of stand-up comedy. With everything else going on it could have been a stretch making this storyline coherent, but Gardner (and co-writer Simon Lord) smoothly incorporate Sarah’s journey to her eventual, and tensely show stopping, performance in a way that highlights the salvation and power of a personal passion. The film is a tough one, but perhaps not bleak: ultimately you feel hopeful about Sarah’s courage and power within. The message, however, is clear: families like Sarah’s are society’s dirty secret, and they’re being failed by the system. 

Jellyfish is a timely and important social commentary with terrific performances. If it can garner even a fraction of the attention of I, Daniel Blake perhaps it could prompt a better understanding of the horrific ramifications of poor mental health on struggling families in poverty, and provide another much needed counter to those hysterical polarising headlines. 

- Reviewed by Wendy Lloyd, film critic and final year undergraduate in BSc Psychology at the Open University.

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