In an age where we have had no shortage of hard-knocks stories, James Gardner’s debut feature Jellyfish manages to take this trope and spin it in such a way as to create a character that manages to find light even in the most pressing of darkness.

We have all – well, hopefully – done things for the people we love. Whether it be buying someone a bar of chocolate to cheer them up or helping them move house or whatever, we’ve all done it. Jellyfish, the debut feature from James Gardner, explores this to profound extremes in following the story of a girl who keeps getting up no matter how many times she gets knocked down.

While it follows a fairly predictable pattern, nevertheless with a few proper gut-punches along the way, the film has one thing that sets it apart from its contemporaries and that is an absolutely electric central performance from Liv Hill. Hill plays Sarah, a 15-year-old girl forced into a life as the sole caregiver for two young siblings and an unreliable, un-understanding, manic-depressive mother, played by Sinéad Matthews.

An opening depicting the easy pleasures to be found for free in throwing rocks into water and catching the older kids kissing in private is at jarring odds to the overly burdened life Sarah has to lead. But in a way, it’s perfect – because every so often the film reminds us that, even in the darkest of times, the simple pleasures can still put a smile on your face. And that’s what this film made me think about – the importance of putting a smile on someone’s face.

Sarah still manages to keep a smile on her own face when she needs it, despite everything, and also manages to give a few other people one in the process. It is this which leads her drama teacher to lead her into exploring stand-up comedy as a creative outlet. Her snappy, quick-witted style lends itself to the form even in day-to-day life. There is a heartfelt charm to seeing the way that she begins to see the world around her through a comedic lens, in a way that almost seems an escape from the necessities of her life.

However, in a way, it is this which shows us the multitude of sins a sense of humour can hide.

Something that lies at the heart of the film is the theory that no-one can ever tell what goes on behind someone’s eyes. As Sarah is pushed to greater and greater lengths to support her family, it is drastically set against the way that people treat her, with little understanding of the way her life has got to go.

Liv Hill in Jellyfish

Liv Hill in Jellyfish  Credit: Jellyfish Feature Film

Watching Sarah struggle as she is constantly blamed for everything that goes wrong in her life through no fault of her own is heartbreaking and Hill handles an incredibly difficult character with not only poise but a hard-edged resilience. She genuinely sells the idea that she is someone to whom putting on a brave face is not only familiar but the basis of her life.

Cyril Nri also brings depth and actually surprising warmth as Mr Hale, the hard-knocks teacher who, while being almost merciless at times, genuinely wants kids to find their ways in the world. He may be a hard taskmaster but he does it from a desire to show people in their best light and to help them realise what is special about them. The way his face lights up when Sarah inadvertently displays her comic talent is as cathartic as a hundred fairytale endings.

Although, in fairness, maybe trying to get Sarah to write non-sweary comedy by exposing her to Frankie Boyle may not have been the smartest educational decision ever taken.

The first line we hear Sarah say in the film employs the phrase ‘joke shop’ and that is strangely apt because, in a way, the procession of hardships Sarah faces starts to feel like some kind of twisted Hawkin’s Bazaar. Sarah’s mother aptly, but rather insensitively, touches on the crux of the film when she learns of Sarah’s new skill – “Comedy? You? But what have you got to tell jokes about?”

You can take all the horror films you like, but for this reviewer, there’s nothing that compares to the emotional trauma of watching a girl preparing to do things that someone of her age should never be forced to. The tension and anxiety in the air as Sarah stares into the mirror of a grimy bar, trying to make herself look ‘sexy’, is almost unbearable.

The fact that Sarah manages to bring a smile to your face, even when you know what might have happened on screen five minutes before, speaks not only to the strength of the character but to Hill’s performance and the enduring ability of laughter to take us away from the harsh realities we may face.

The film is not without some issues. Some of the later events in the film do feel a bit excessive in the way they pile onto each other and there comes a point where the lack of understanding from any other character becomes almost oppressive. However, it is still a powerful film about courage, resilience and the belief that everyone has their place in the world.

At the end of the day, as Sarah learns, a smile costs nothing – and at the end of Jellyfish, despite everything that went before it, you might just be left with one anyway.