"Jellyfish" Captures the Reality of Growing Up with a Mentally Ill Parent

By Dorri Olds 05/25/18

“The last thing we wanted to do was make all of the problems attributable to alcohol,” Gardner said. “That’s too easy."

Liv Hill in "Jellyfish"
Sarah finds relief in an unlikely place: standup comedy. Credit: Dan Atherton

Jellyfish, an official selection of the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, centers around Sarah Taylor (Liv Hill), an overburdened teenage girl living in Margate, a dreary seaside town in England. Her mother, Karen (Sinéad Matthews), stays in bed all day while Sarah rushes her younger siblings, boy and girl twins (Henry Lile and Jemima Newman) to school. Sarah pedals madly on a bicycle with the youngsters seated in a makeshift wooden trailer that’s hooked to the back. It’s a sad rickety setup that instantly conveys how poverty stricken they are.

Even without knowing the whole story, I kept wanting to shout at the screen, “You need Al-Anon!”

At the first glimpse of Karen lying limp in her bed, it’s obvious she is not well. Between the combo of music (Victor Hugo Fumagalli), cinematography (Peter Riches), and brilliant-yet-subtle acting on the lead actor's expressive face, it's clear mom is not just down with the flu.

At first, I assumed Karen was bedridden because she was hooked on opioids. I predicted a flashback about a divorce that had flattened her; there was clearly no man in the home. Projecting my own life onto the film, I thought: maybe she had gum surgery, the dentist prescribed 30 days of Vicodin for pain, then she got hooked and was taking too many and ordered more off the internet. That would explain the tiredness.

In another scene, there’s a bottle of vodka on a living room table between the couch and TV. Ah ha! I thought. She’s an alcoholic. I always appreciate clues in flicks, so I can try to guess what they might mean. That is the formula for every episode of Law & Order.

As the story unfolds, things become clearer. Mom isn’t suffering from addiction, she has bipolar disorder.

Watching Liv Hill's performance in Jellyfish, I was reminded of Jennifer Lawrence in the 2010 movie that launched her career: Winter’s Bone. Both films are realistic and raw; they even have a similar setup. Lawrence played Ree, an Ozark Mountain 17-year-old fighting to keep her family from losing their home. Her mother is catatonic and Ree’s younger sibs need her. Filled with rage and desperation she hunts down her meth-cooking dad (John Hawkes) to demand money.

In Jellyfish, Sarah drops her younger sibs at school, then pedals furiously to get to her classes on time. Schoolmates ostracize her but Sarah tries to shrug it off—she has much bigger problems to focus on. When school lets out, she hightails it to work. She cleans pinball machines in an almost barren arcade. A few lonely old men lurk about, playing the games and trying to engage Sarah in conversation. The job pays pitifully but Sarah has no other options. The family is already receiving government assistance but, as in the U.S., the checks aren’t enough for a family to live on.

As with any good story, the stakes keep rising. Our reluctant protagonist is pushed to the limits and finds herself in one degrading situation after another. When all seems lost and she’s on the verge of an emotional collapse, her drama teacher, Mr. Hyde (Cyril Nri), helps her channel rage into standup comedy. The ending isn’t tied in a bow but it is hopeful and I was grateful. With an incredible sense of relief, I was able to breathe again.

Jellyfish is the feature film debut for director-writer James Gardner, who co-wrote the script with Simon Lord. I hate reviews that contain spoilers so I’ll be vague. The timing of this indie is ideal. It’s full of hot-button issues.

Jellyfish actor Liv Hill and director James Gardner (photo by Dorri Olds)

I sat down with Gardner and Hill in an exclusive interview for The Fix.

“Sarah is an extremely vulnerable young girl,” said Gardner, “and when you’re writing a film about something that’s actually taking place in the world, you have a responsibility to get [things] right. We had conversations with real carers.”

It took me a minute to grasp that the English word carers is equivalent to what we Americans refer to as caregivers. Gardner explained that what happened to Sarah was based on true-to-life situations. He and co-writer Lord felt it was vitally important to be careful with representing characters who were in such dire straits due to a mentally ill parent.

Despite her youth, actress Hill expressed a mature grasp of her character’s hardships.

“Sarah is such a young carer,” she said. “I wanted to make sure I was playing it the right way. It’s such a gritty role and a sensitive subject. [Sarah’s plight] is very real and it’s happening everywhere.”

It’s no surprise that the talented Hill has already been nominated for a 2018 BAFTA award—Best Supporting Actress in a BBC drama (Three Girls).

“She’s got such a different life than me,” said Hill. “I’m really lucky to have…two parents and to have grown up comfortably. Sarah is literally just surviving. I felt a lot of empathy and sadness for her.”

When I asked if she could imagine being as strong as Sarah is, Hill, 16, said: “I suppose you never really know what you’d be like in certain circumstances. I’ve got a seven-year-old sister, and I feel so protective of her, almost maternal. [Sarah] doesn’t have a chance to complain, she just has to get on with it.”

Gardner, switching roles and becoming the interviewer for a minute, asked me why I had first thought Karen must be someone struggling with addiction or alcoholism.

He said, “We did a huge amount of work researching into manic depressive illness and how that affects family members. It’s such an important issue to talk about and it can’t just be exploited for dramatic purposes. We had to make sure we got it right.” Gardner also confided that Karen’s bipolar illness was the toughest challenge he and his co-writer Lord faced when constructing the character.

“The last thing we wanted to do was make all of the problems attributable to alcohol,” Gardner said. “That’s too easy. You can’t dismiss Karen’s condition by just going off, like, ‘She’s drunk.’ We wanted to show that her problems go deeper than that and the [alcoholism] is a result of mental illness.”

I didn’t want to challenge him but I couldn’t stop myself: “Drug addicts and alcoholics are suffering from a mental illness and their symptoms can be very similar to bipolar—like the way a speed freak can go soaring into euphoria and then crash into the depths of despair.” To lighten things up I added with a wink, “Not that I have any personal knowledge of such things.”

As it turns out Sarah’s story was, in part, inspired by a close friend of Gardner’s.

“She’d lost her mother to manic depressive illness,” he said. “Her mum committed suicide so I experienced it vicariously through being friends with her—knowing what her life was like when her mum was doing things like buying a boat on a credit card.”

He gave another example: “She would buy three of [the same thing] on Amazon for no reason, other than she felt like it.”

For research purposes, the filmmaker contacted Carers Trust in the U.K., a nonprofit that gives support to carers.

“Simon, my co-writer, volunteered in order to get first-hand experience ” said Gardner. “And my father works for the local authority and basically runs projects that support vulnerable people. He was a great help when I was writing scenes where I needed to know the specific language [to use].”

Hill said, “Sarah’s got … so much responsibility and so much weight on her shoulders. There’s just a lot of angst inside her and that’s why she’s very volatile. I think it takes a lot of bravery when Sarah just gets up there and uses standup comedy as escapism. She’s so strong and so direct and she doesn’t even give a you-know-what.”

I wondered at the use of the term manic depression instead of bipolar, thinking it might be more commonly used in the U.K., so on my way home I texted Jessie Close who is active with the nonprofit Bring Change 2 Mind. Her big sis, actor Glenn Close, set it up after Jessie was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and Jessie’s son with schizoaffective disorder.

"Isn’t manic-depression an outdated term? I thought it’s bipolar now. Maybe it’s because he’s from England? They say carer instead of caregiver and mum instead of mom."

Another friend from BC2M clarified that “She’s bipolar” is incorrect. “That’s like saying, ‘She is cancer.’ The preferred way to say it is ‘She has bipolar disorder.’” And she pointed out that the newest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual has replaced “manic depression” with “bipolar disorder.”

But Jessie responded: "I prefer manic-depression myself but, you know, at BC2M, it’s all about educate, educate, educate."

When I told her about Jellyfish and what the director had said about alcohol, Jessie pointed out, “Many people don’t know that alcoholism is a mental illness. And, hey! I’m proud to say I am now 17 years sober!”

BC2M is all about educating as many as possible. “Education is the only way to spread the word,” wrote Jessie. “When we bump up against ignorance it’s our responsibility to educate; there seems to be no alternative to wiping out the prejudice against anyone who is mentally ill. Right now, you can use this film review to educate your audience. There’s enough anger and hatred going around right now and you have a teachable moment.”

Help and support for anyone caring for someone with bipolar disorder can be found here: bipolarcaregivers.org

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Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.