The eponymous protagonist of Jessie Barr's unadorned adolescent drama Sophie Jones acts and feels like a real teenager. Prone to mood swings, thoughtlessness, selfishness, and knee-jerk reactions, Sophie is a struggle-in-progress, and her warts-and-all presentation gives the film an air of authenticity that makes its hit-or-miss storyline stick with you. Barr, who cowrote the script with the lead actress Jessica Barr (who happens to be her cousin and a filmmaker in her own right), doesn't so much tell a conventional three-act story as she follows a series of unfolding events over the course of two troubled years in Sophie's life. Some events lead to other events, while some are dead ends and others are left hanging-but isn't that life? The film's messiness is a reflection of Sophie's messiness, and it works.
When we first meet her, Sophie is a high school junior who has just lost her mother (it's never stated outright, but we assume she died of cancer). Sophie's responses are muddled, confused, and awkward. The opening scene finds her pulling the box of her mother's ashes from a closet shelf and tentatively putting some on her finger and tasting it, which is followed by a scene in which she propositions a boy named Kevin (Skyler Verity), who is in her theater class, to hook up. Sophie has a younger sister, Lucy (Charlie Jackson), and her dad, Aaron (Dave Roberts), is sweet and well meaning, but largely clueless about what she is up to. She has a senior best friend, Claire (Claire Manning), who is tall and blonde and more sexually experienced. She also has a best friend named Riley (Tristan Decker), who we immediately know will present complications at some point when their obvious attraction to each other is acted upon. However, much of the story follows Sophie's on-again/off-again realtionship with Kevin, who is a generally nice guy who likes Sophie, but doesn't always know how to manage her complicated emotions (he is, if anything, too simple in his own emotional register). At one point Sophie becomes involved with Tony (Chase Offerle), who is not a nice guy, but who she seeks out to lose her virginity because she knows he is experienced.
As even that brief rundown suggests, Sophie is not a model of good decision making, but that is precisely the point. A mess of conflicting emotions, grief over the loss of her mother, and confusion over her place in the world, Sophie is constantly acting out, but in ways that makes sense to her in the moment. We wince as she creates conflict where there doesn't necessarily need to be any, but we always understand where she's coming from. Sophie Jones is a genuinely empathetic film, and Jessica Barr's performance is crucial to making it work. She nails Sophie's mix of unformed awkwardness and unearned confidence; the dialogue and interactions feel right and natural and true, and she never oversells a moment or works to make us like the character. Rather, she presents her as she is so that we cringe when she's overly self-conscious, feel angry when she treats others poorly, and rejoice when she finds some sliver of happiness or peace.
This is the feature debut of director/co-writer Jessie Barr, a two-time Sundance fellow who has previously written and directed a number of shorts. She displays a confident understanding of the material and what makes it work. She and cinematographer Scott Miller, who has shot numerous indie productions, give the film a rough, unpolished feel that is never overly precious or showy in its semi-documentary aesthetic. Barr allows the characters to be real, and we often feel like the proverbial fly on the wall observing their private interactions. The only time the film feels forced is when Barr lays an indie pop song on the soundtrack, which unfortunately happens with significant frequency, each time puncturing the film's otherwise well-cultivated sense of physical and emotional realism.
Copyright © 2021 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Oscilloscope
Overall Rating: (3)
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