Grief, girlhood and growing up form an intriguing mix in this intimate indie drama that serves as the directorial debut from Jessie Barr. Sophie Jones follows a sixteen-year-old mourning the loss of her mother while being in the throes of teenage sexual awakening and explores the range of emotions – both forceful and stifled.
The film opens with Sophie burying her face in her mothers’ clothes before reaching to the back of the closest for the ashes of her that remain. Sat and slowly sifting through them before trying to taste them and awkwardly halting, reflects a reckoning still in the process and very much wrapped in young impulsiveness. What follows focuses on Sophie’s sudden (by numerous concerned friend’s accounts) push into sexual intimacy. Jessie Barr, (director Barr’s cousin) who plays Sophie, does well in portraying her with an air of affable nonchalance as she begins actively propositioning male classmates who seem more aware of the vulnerability linked to her circumstances than she does.
What is immediately striking for much of the first act is how sound is deployed from scene to scene. There’s silence as Sophie navigates her encounters with her classmates, before shifting to upbeat, poppy music – familiar in on-screen teen moments of exploration- to accompany kissing and touching. This is then contrasted sharply with Sophie leaving to return home, the car filled with blaring angst-filled radio, then just as abrupt, silence once more as she sets the plates for dinner with her sister and father. Barr skillfully uses these different sounds to hint at not just the chaotic nature of being a teenager, but also the discord and contradictions that lie beneath the surface of Sophie. The angst appearing when she is travelling home, alone and now separate from the heady excitement of hooking up, through to entering an environment where her father (Dave Roberts) and sister (Charlie Jackson) seem much more reticent about vocalising any pain they may be going through. Barr also uses the camera work to communicate the messiness of the journey through this adolescent period with shaky, close up shots that make us feel like a passenger along the ride.
Yet, for all the devices that Sophie Jones uses to engage the viewer, at times its stillness works against it. By employing less of a narrative-driven approach and instead functioning in part as a series of vignettes; seeing Sophie making awkward mistake after mistake and lashing out periodically without knowing what these scenes are building towards can make for slow viewing. The snapshot style can also make it difficult to thread the film’s overarching themes together. Despite the aim to illustrate the subtleties of grief and how it intersects with and affects the teenage sexual experience, it isn’t always clear how these two elements intermingle beyond just happening at the same time.
Soon Sophie starts to suffer the consequences of her single-minded assertiveness after her involvement with both classmate Kevin (Skyler Verity) and ‘bad boy’ Tony (Chase Offerle) catch up with her, and rumours abound across campus. Barr examines these repercussions thoughtfully as Sophie’s hedonistic actions are interrogated through the way they cause her to sidestep the fact that Kevin is an actual valued friend, who later confronts her on the way their relationship has been treated as a tool for her own agenda. Barr deftly manages to acknowledge the grief that is driving Sophie’s decisions, while holding her to account for her missteps, as human as they may be.
On the whole, Sophie Jones is a heartfelt drama that while it may struggle to engage consistently, holds firm to the story it wants to tell. At the start of the film, Sophie points out to her therapist that she hasn’t been self-harming, drinking or taking drugs, and it’s refreshing to see a portrayal of bereavement manifested in a way that speaks to its sometimes more muted nature. As the titular character, Jessica Barr gives an assured performance that feels authentic and layered in both its vulnerability and teenage tenacity. Barr crafts a debut directorial effort that illustrates the quiet complexity of grief, while providing a picture of sexual coming of age that feels rebellious, uncontrollable and ultimately unapologetic. Sophie Jones has much to offer – a touching portrait of a young girl growing into herself while enduring unimaginable loss; but its struggle to make each emotional thread meet at a pace that satisfies, may leave those looking for a more traditional narrative feeling cold, despite its charm.
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