In many ways, Sophie Jones (Jessica Barr) is a regular teenage girl. She Iikes driving around while playing loud music, she’s not super hyped about school, she struggles to bond with her family, and she’s more than a little boy crazy. But underneath Sophie’s seemingly normal trappings simmers a deep grief: the first time we see her on screen in Jessie Barr’s moving, often painful feature debut “Sophie Jones,” she’s burying her nose in her dead mother’s clothes and running her hands through her ashes. Written by both Barrs (the young women are cousins and, like their title character, lost parents when they were just 16), “Sophie Jones” tackles a tough two-fer: dramatizing the usual pains of high school, coupled with a pervasive grief that Sophie just can’t shake.
Opening soon after the death of Sophie’s mother, the teenager reasons that she’s coping well enough, at least she’s not cutting herself or drinking or taking drugs. Instead, however, Sophie has turned her attention to the seeming wealth of winsome high school boys, all eager to “comfort” her in mostly physical ways. Her first conquest: sweet Kevin (Skyler Verity), who she finds attractive for a number of reasons, but mostly because he recently announced to a class that “The Old Man and the Sea” is his favorite book. (Sophie, we get it, we really do.)
Being a teenager is hard enough, and high school is, was, and will always be a battlefield, and Sophie’s terrible grief only makes things worse. Her worst impulses are exacerbated, her most terrible emotions are heightened, and — unlike high school, which at least has an expiration date — there’s no sense of when this will ever end. Knowing that the Barrs wrote the film from their own experiences adds veracity to every moment, particularly the ones in which Sophie seems to be, well, “normal.” Every second of her life is recontextualized in regards to her loss, and so too is the Barrs’. They know what they’re talking about, and that level of hard-won knowledge adds an intimacy to the film that toggles between necessary and uncomfortable.
It’s always hard to find a place in your life for grief, an ask that seems even more impossible when you’re just 16 and nothing seems to have its right place. As Sophie floats through the final half of her high school tenure — there’s nothing as effective in the film as Barr’s fascinating sense of time, setting Sophie adrift on a slipstream of days that quickly turn into months — she continues to try to find meaning in typically “bad” teenage behavior. Both of the Barrs show a knack for marrying humor and darkness during some of these pivotal scenes, including a fight in which Sophie lashes out at her best friend Claire (Claire Manning) and a virginity-losing scene that would be funny if it wasn’t so upsetting.
Director Barr’s intimate filmmaking finds the space to cover a multitude of moments in Sophie’s life that add up to something profound, from the mundane sequences that see her fully engaging with her grief to brief moments of respite (often with her family, including Charlotte Jackson as younger sister Lucy, a character worth more exploration) in which the sun quite literally seems to shine on the Jones clan. Most successful, however, are the sequences in which Sophie overtly engages with her grief — not always easy in films about the subject — and is forced to give voice to everything swirling inside her. One protracted scene sees actress Barr laying bare all the details of her mother’s passing to Kevin, a strong showing of her performance skills in a film that often lets her just float through scenes.
The finer details of “Sophie Jones” will likely strike a chord with audience members who have also been through the death of a parent, like a moving sequence late in the film in which an unknowing Sophie is essentially dispatched as some grand guru of mom-mourning, even as she still has no idea what she’s doing with her pain. It’s moments like that one which speak to the film’s real power: honesty, even when it hurts. Grief, maybe even the good kind.
An Oscilloscope Laboratories release, “Sophie Jones” is in select theaters and on digital platforms and VOD now.
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