Sophie Jones (Jessica Barr, cousin to the director and co-writer of the screenplay) is a 16-year-old in suburban Oregon who is mourning the death of her beloved mother. Whilst she claims to be doing well, it’s clear that she is at a loss. She may be avoiding self-harm and substance abuse, but she is grieving in her own self-destructive away.
Sophie’s choice of destruction is sex. She is searching for some form of inner peace through romance and sex. Reminiscent of Greta Gerwig’s Ladybird, Sophie isn’t seeking out romance because she wants it but because she feels like she should want it. The film’s narrative meanders through her ill-fated encounters with various nice but bland boys. The unusual shape of this narrative won’t be for everyone, it is un-traditional but perfectly encapsulates how disruptive grief can be to someone who has yet to find themselves.
The film jumps between intimately raw scenes of Sophie grieving and upbeat ones where she is pretending she is okay on dates. High school is bad enough for the average teen, let alone one who has to hide behind such a thick veneer of normalcy. She not only has to deal with popularity, making friends and losing her virginity, but she has to work out if it’s too soon after the funeral to get back to pretend-normalcy. It uses all the tropes of modern sex-orientated teen comedies like Booksmart, Ladybird and Easy A and gives it a new layer of poignancy.
Sophie’s main coping mechanism is socialising with boys. The talk of sex, contraception and masturbation is refreshingly normal, and is never used for shock value. Sophie’s flings never last and they never make her feel as alive as she hopes they will. What she is really looking for is love, not that she will ever admit it. Every time a boy wants to get serious with her she ends it, every time a friend tells her some uncomfortable truths she snaps at them. She wants sexual urgency not intimacy, she’s already lost somebody and she doesn’t want to go through that again. Sophie Jones understands that grief is a complicated emotion, especially when mixed with the confusing internal monologue of a teenager. Barr perfectly conveys every second of emotional turmoil. In social situations she seems to be coping, but we can see a flash of pain flick through her eyes.
Sophie Jones is uncomfortably intimate, so much so it’s probably best to avoid it if you’ve recently suffered a loss. It doesn’t wallow in pity or become trauma porn; it instead deals with how loss can be overcome by someone so young, and how you can learn to open up in the aftermath. It takes the saddest of topics and finds the uplifting humanity in it. The film also deals with the importance of connecting to people who can relate to your trauma. Even if you haven’t suffered a loss, you will still find a message about friendship and human connection. One monologue in the middle act, where she describes the day her mother died is one of the saddest pieces of writing in recent cinema.
The cinematographer Scott Miller contrasts the bleak subject matter with surprisingly bright scenery. The sun is always shining, the sky is always blue and the score by Nate Heller is joyfully upbeat. The colour blue and water is an important allegory for Sophie and her personal journey. Filmed in Portland, Oregon, many scenes are filled with blue water from rain to waterfalls. The nature is used as a way to connect Sophie to her mother, the film ending with ashes being scattered across the water.
This is a personal project to director Jessie Barr. She spent 15 years never speaking about her father’s death, that was until she put her grief into Sophie Jones. Jessica Barr, who plays the lead and co-wrote the screenplay, also lost a parent to cancer as a teenager found catharsis in the process of creation.
Sophie Jones rarely takes a step out of place. It’s one of the most authentic explorations of grief in recent cinema. With a fantastic performance from Barr and stunning direction, this film will stick with you long after the credits roll.
Sophie Jones enjoyed its World Premiere at the Deauville American Film Festival on September 10th
by Amelia Harvey
Amelia is a freelance writer, frustrated novelist and occasional wrangling of international students. She is especially interested in LBGTQ culture and 1960s and 70s music. She also writes for Frame Rated, The People’s Movies and Unkempt Magazine, amongst others. Her favourite films include Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, Moulin Rouge and Closer. You can find her on Twitter @MissAmeliaNancy and letterboxd @amelianancy