With a quietly assured lead and a keen sense of rhythm, Jessie Barr’s debut feature announces the writer/director as a talent to watch.
From suppression to explosion, grief can take many forms, but it is above all disruptive. We often can’t recognize how much we rely on our unspoken expectations of the future until some unforeseen tragedy throws us off the path, leaving us scrambling to find our way back to normalcy. And it’s exactly this messy, confusing, and protracted struggle for equilibrium that’s explored in Sophie Jones, the outstanding first feature from writer/director Jessie Barr.
Sophie (Jessica Barr, cousin to the director and co-writer of the screenplay) is a teenager in suburban Oregon whose comfortable home life has recently been thrown off balance by the death of her mother. This leaves the shy and sensitive woman grasping for coping mechanisms. While she professes to be doing well by virtue of avoiding self-harm and substance abuse, it’s clear from our first glimpse at Sophie—privately examining and then tentatively tasting her mother’s ashes—that this is a young adult at a loss for appropriate modes of processing.
Among the great strengths of Barr’s gentle and generous film is the choice of setting. A typical year at an American high school provides comfortable narrative guardrails that prevent the story from drifting into formless malaise while allowing the social pressures of adolescence to heighten the stakes of Sophie’s pain. If surviving high school under the best of circumstances requires the performance of social ease despite a turbulent inner landscape, Barr’s heightening of that turmoil renders Sophie’s familiar task painfully urgent.
The disruptive facts of Sophie’s grief contribute to a disrupted sense of narrative structure too, and while the film’s unusual shape may be thematically appropriate, the non-propulsive plot will likely prove a challenge to some casual viewers. Sophie Jones is largely devoted to Sophie’s pursuit of romantic and sexual experiences. The results are reminiscent of Lady Bird, another story of a young woman searching for inner peace through various ill-fated entanglements. But also like in Greta Gerwig’s film, Sophie pursues these relationships less out of romantic desire than a self-imposed pressure.
What Sophie Jones lacks—to its credit, if to the potential detriment of audience satisfaction—is the clear goal that provides Lady Bird’s narrative engine. Whereas in that film the protagonist’s behavior was motivated by an achievable desire to leave her hometown, Sophie’s path to satisfaction isn’t nearly as straightforward. However, such streamlined emotional targets are a privilege that grief denies both the viewer and the character, and Barr never shies away from the painful ambiguities of emotional recovery. We experience Sophie’s struggles alongside her, the storytellers skillfully guiding us enough to flout convention.
Jessica Barr’s work—and those of the larger ensemble—also carry Sophie Jones. No performance falls victim to the familiar awkward staginess that dooms many low-budget features. It’s a testament to the power of a director with a keen eye for casting and performance. Conversational dialogue, observational camerawork, and vérité-style editing rhythms support the naturalistic tone as well. This looseness can be difficult to pull off without becoming aimless, but Barr’s direction rarely lets the pace slacken, suggesting her to be a storyteller with an innate sense of structure.
This looseness can be difficult to pull off without becoming aimless, but Barr’s direction rarely lets the pace slacken, suggesting her to be a storyteller with an innate sense of structure.
If Sophie Jones does falter, it’s in the rough shading of some supporting roles. The story has a satisfying willingness to mimic the feeling of being dropped into a kaleidoscopic high school ecosystem without convenient underlining of every personality and relationship. And yet without efficient characterization, such an effect can become alienating, and it’s easy to come unmoored among Sophie’s social matrix, detached from the significance of the character dynamics at play.
There are times when the deliberately low-incident Sophie Jones can feel like adolescent slow cinema. Echoes can be felt of both Princess Cyd and Columbus, two films with minimal plot intrigue but acute awareness of the capacity for joy and sorrow in everyday life. But while this may suggest esoterism, the Barr cousins deliver an unusually satisfying take on adolescent upheaval, one threaded with striking imagery that celebrates the grace and beauty in the most unremarkable environs. It won’t be for everyone, but it’s exactly the sort of risk-taking story that yields the greatest emotional reward.
Sophie Jones is currently touring festivals. Visit the film’s homepage for information on screenings.