Jellyfish (2018), dir. James Gardner


TW: contains discussion of the sexual abuse of a minor and my own personal experience. (this is more of a trigger warning than the film itself provides.)

Jellyfish has three rape scenes, an attempted rape scene and a scene discussing rape. The film doesn’t explicitly delineate all of these as rape scenes, but make no mistake: a 15 year old – a minor – cannot consent to sex, or exchange money with an adult as a contract – by definition, it is statutory rape.

The BBFC’s own classification and Insight struggles to put the film into words.

very strong language, strong sex references, scene of sexual violence

The 15 rating seems ludicrous: is the explicit subject matter enough for a minor to fully process, especially if they are a victim themselves? The film’s promotional blurb emphasised the angle of being an up-and-coming young comedian over the more serious themes. Before the changes of the new millennium, where enforced guidelines were instituted, even films for adults such as Straw Dogs (1971) that dealt with rape trauma were restricted for fear of sexual exploitation and encouraging rape – affecting not only theatrical exhibition but especially video. But what about the impact on survivors of rape? Responses to trauma will never be identical, but unique to each person and scenario.

I don’t want to be critical of everyone involved in putting an indie film together. In The Fight, Liv Hill plays another school aged character – a bully, Jordan, inheriting the fears and dislikes of her mother (also a bully) – that affects the generations of both the present and past and providing the film with its emotional core. Many of the performances are solid, but are weakened by the film’s problematic screenplay and intentions. Wanting to support the UK film industry in an era of Hollywood domination can open one up in negative ways: seeing films that aren’t discussed enough to be able to make an informed decision, and seeing films that aren’t formed as wholly as they could be. Jellyfish isn’t the first gritty indie British drama about a teenage girl directed by a man, and it won’t be the last. Female directors can provide an additional degree of complexity and greater sensitivity, with their (statistically more likely) own experiences as the target of childhood sexualisation and abuse able to influence the film’s content: The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015) brings with it a complex personality and identity, having healthy, adolescent sexual desires, self-reflection and understanding, and providing hope by being able to escape a toxic situation – all viewed through a female lens.

Before the film, knowing of a singular rape scene, I debated whether I wanted to be subjected to it, reading over the film’s website and messaging a friend. But I figured, I was already at the cinema, and broadening my cinematic outlook – and supporting independent cinema that places women in central roles – should be a positive. It’s better to take the risk. Instead, the film brought with it a re-traumatising constant state of anxiety and dissociation: I was empty, unable to think to get the bus home. I was back in high school, scenes playing through my mind that should no longer be there; it’s a regression to return. I thought I’d be over it by now. During the film’s central rape scene, Sarah’s employer at the arcade she works at allows her to keep her job if she gives him something in return; the camera holds upon the scene – a continuation of the abuse she experiences at her place of work, a way to keep her quiet from this information being imparted to the police, the workplace where adults take advantage of her by paying her for blowjobs (statutory rape) by the bins. I left for the bathroom, angered at both myself for thinking the film would be okay and that I could handle it, and at the film for depicting it in the first place – but I left my bag in the screen to come to, as though I needed a reason to return. Maybe it will get better. The audience wasn’t anyone I could talk to, but an older one, perhaps more distant from their younger days.

Thinking back now, I’d have left and asked for a refund – what’s the point in finishing a film for the sake of logging it? But it’s hard to apply those critical thinking skills when you’re traumatised.

Rewatching Mysterious Skin (2004) last year, I had the benefit of watching it on DVD: the theatrical experience runs on the benefit of a social contract that risks being offended and breached at any time, without the ability to pause if things are getting too rough. My anxiety crept up and I was within my own thoughts, but I was in control; I wasn’t helpless. Here’s how I responded then:

Brian’s response to abuse – being read as asexual – is exactly how I responded to abuse (and I’m not saying asexuals need to be broken because of course they don’t) – and it took me a long while until I could embrace what consensual sex means without being so repulsed I wanted to throw up. I don’t think I’ve been repulsed for at least the past year

this film IS my life in a sense – reflecting trauma, searching through one’s memory until you reach a revelation, being haunted by the physical (and not just digital) traces of an abuser, having fucked up teenage years that nobody should have to go through

Mysterious Skin works not only as a queer text about childhood sexual abuse, but also as a multi-layered reflexive work that utilises the elements of Araki’s wider filmography – in particular the use of extraterrestrials in LA in Nowhere (1997) – that informs the use of the alien as a means of explaining and escaping trauma within a more serious, down to earth and less campy framework.

The problem is that Jellyfish doesn’t really discuss rape. It highlights the financial necessity for a family living in poverty, but this isn’t a film about rape, lacking a resolution to the emotional arc. One of the film’s unexpected highlights is Sarah’s teacher, Mr. Hale (Cyril Nri) confronting her work ethic and influencing her to commit to and follow her passions. Nri had been extraordinary in his role in Russell T. Davies’ series Cucumber (2015) as Lance – dealing with what it means to be a gay adult and partner in an era of same sex marriage but also continuing homophobia. He comforts her, but we’re not privy to their conversations: not every film should give us a resolution, but leaving things still in process here is the worst thing to do, even as an open conversation. There’s also an implication that the coastal town of Margate that Sarah lives in – compared to somewhere like London – makes this abuse more common, which isn’t particularly helpful.

Everything is muddy: we’re never given any trustworthy male characters who can provide a positive role model, or any female characters with a more nuanced perspective on what being a sex worker is like. It truly feels like Gardner has nothing to say beyond depicting misery: no solutions are presented, only negativity. What should be the film’s main focus – the growth of Sarah’s interest in comedy and becoming interested in being a stand-up – is largely marginalised. There’s an emotional arc about the performance at the Theatre Royal organised by her school, but using comedy as a means of dealing with trauma – on stage, she bursts out the truth of being raped without a complete understanding of what it represents, killing the mood of the comedy but providing the right red flags – and imagining your own responses to scenarios – is played with, yet never fully explored. Sarah is hurting throughout the film, and it’s clear this needs to come out. But the lack of any consequence – besides some meditative nighttime location shots – hurt the film greatly.

Similarly, Sarah having to take too much on as she adapts to the function of motherhood that should be provided for her – between work and school, looking after her siblings and practicing comedy and dealing with the challenges of impoverished austerity Britain (benefits, food banks, disability) – is one of the most attractive points about the film, and during these scenes I truly appreciated the film, before it started to fall apart. Hill’s abrasive attitude can be a little much to handle, but it’s a strong reminder that teenagers are still children, without the emotional capacity to communicate or respond to situations in the same way as adults, even when she puts on a performance much better and more competent than the adults around her. Hill provides a standout young performance where she can channel her rage and anger into comedy.

But this brings me back to one of the film’s main issues: it never decides what it wants to be and focus on. Seeing Sarah’s chronically tired mum with her own mental disability is at times relatable, and it can be easy to truly feel sorry for her, but the film never makes a point of empowering her to live with her disability, or overcome the tired ableist tropes of being lazy or unable to conceptualise what value is that Sarah places upon her. Of course she’s more than that and wants the best life for her kids – but she can’t hold onto the money she has, spending it on useless things, and Gardner never allows us to see her struggling from her own perspective. What could be a serious exploration of her issues instead becomes a joke. Her personality becomes nasty – as though we must immediately dismiss her – without allowing her to explain her absences from her children’s lives, or attempt to resolve her destructive relationship with Sarah. We see her failing her own daughter – implicitly allowing the abuse to continue because ‘sex work’ (the abuse of a minor) to survive is the most important thing. But what experiences has she gone through to have created the circumstances for this deeply problematic position? As mother and daughter, they’re never allowed to form any connection, even if they maintain their distance from each other.

Sarah latches onto Frankie Boyle and his statement in a Glasgow performance that rape jokes can be funny – something she laughs at. This notion – especially to a survivor – is provided some scarce interrogation. Her teacher gives her a list of female comedians – including the golden Victoria Wood – to look up, but we never see her sampling these different comedians (only Boyle) – without ever questioning what it means to be female among a famous lineup of male comedians. Everyone who dismisses her as a comedian – including her own mum – can only ever come up with male comedians as examples – but again this is only just lying above the surface.

I’m so tired of pedophilia being depicted on screen without being presented in complex and sensitive ways, especially from male perspectives: whether it’s L.I.E. (2001) or the abduction and ceremonial rape of a young girl – taken in by and escaping pimps – within a crime drama context in London to Brighton (2006), or the subtextual homoerotic coding of Apt Pupil (1998) – a film directed by a noted pedophile that was met with allegations of of abuse on set to a 13 year old actor (and with enforced shower nudity). Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) – a film that was produced, in part, through a porn industry background – depicts Van Peebles’ own son being abused through childhood as he grows up to become a man renowned for his skill in fucking women – and opens with a simulated, three minute long rape scene through the film’s opening credits, revealing his bare ass as a minor penetrates an adult woman. Child actors like Jodie Foster, across films like Taxi Driver (1975) and The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976), often played empowered young girls preyed upon by disgusting men, able to reclaim their troubled situations. In Pretty Baby (1978), Brooke Shields played a 12 year old girl in 1910s New Orleans failed by the adults complicit in her abuse, bid upon and prostituted by men, with young sexuality paraded as a virginal rite of passage and sexualised as “pretty” in makeup and corsets. Malle was himself scrutinised for his use of nudity of a minor in the film, with minor cuts and optical darkening – and the sense that the film’s themes justified an 18 rating. It’s difficult not to either exploit child actors or exploit the scenes themselves.

Jellyfish almost expects this behaviour of a certain type of leery, creepy, dishevelled, overweight man (Alice Sweet Alice (1976) similarly produces another, villainous, monstrous, ableist, sexually abusive archetype in the role of a neighbour). But we should never accept this as typical behaviour of men. We should actively try and take every step to prevent children becoming victims of abuse, provide real safeguards and teach how abuse occurs.

I’ve read some parallels to Ken Loach but I really don’t see it: Loach and his collaborators are more competent, invested in building relationships with actors, addressing matters sensitively and extensively researching beforehand. The filmmaking and cinematography of Jellyfish are at times strong, but it’s never social realist – the camera shakes, rarely mounted to a tripod, the characters are caricatures – this is about as far from social realism as you can get, but more a parody of social realism.

I’m angry. I’m triggered. And yes, I’m fucking tired.

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