Navigating the precarious aspects of growing up while simultaneously buried deep in the throes of grief is one young woman’s struggle in director Jessie Barr’s “Sophie Jones.” This meaningful drama, co-written and starring Barr’s cousin Jessica, taps into the immediacy of being a teenager and the intimacy of sorrow, yielding astute insights. The pair set their story during the fertile period in a maturing teen’s life when hormones and complex emotions run roughshod. With Nicole Holofcener on board as executive producer, it’s a poignant exploration of this arduous age, rooted in staggering authenticity.
Sixteen-year-old Sophie (Jessica Barr) has been reeling since the recent death of her mother. The absence is achingly painful as Sophie scours Mom’s closet for any tangible remnant, any reminder, from smelling her clothes to sorting through her ashes. Sophie’s father Aaron (Dave Roberts) and younger sister Lucy (Charlie Jackson) are reticent to talk about the void left in the household. Sophie’s left to sort out her difficult emotions outside of her therapist’s office on her own, which leads to her feeling isolated. No space provides any refuge, especially when she’s confronted by life’s mundane tasks, like setting the table where they once faced each other, or tossing her mom’s multitude of medications.
While the high school senior isn’t participating in anything destructive (like self-harm or drug use), she’s coping by using sex as a superficial bandage to cover a gaping wound. Sophie begins pushing her personal boundaries by making out with classmate Kevin (Skyler Verity), who seems to be more considerate of her well-being than she is. Soon after hooking up with Kevin, Sophie chases that momentary high by pursuing the school’s resident sexually experienced “bad boy,” Tony (Chase Offerle), who is also harboring a crush on her. However, the headstrong teen’s antics start to catch up with her when she gets warnings from her best friend Clarie (Claire Manning), who lovingly cautions her about her inexperience and shares the rumors floating around campus.
Barr is thoughtful and sensitive about keeping Sophie’s sexual agency at the forefront without exploiting it. She’s a girl thrust into womanhood, grappling with a life-altering shift that’s thrust her into adulthood. Of course, she’s going to act on her newfound adult curiosities. She’s not provocative, nor is she judged as such. She’s driven by the satisfaction of her pure id, sacrificing her ego at the behest of the loneliness and angst festering inside. Her awakening is a rebellious middle finger to uncontrollable upheaval. It’s an act in the realm of her control over milestone moments as the world spirals around her.
Naturally, she suffers some consequences because of her newfound proclivity. It gets her into trouble with a few of her classmates, including one of her valued male friends, who refuses to play along with Sophie’s libidinous agenda. Consent is handled with a tender touch, both the men gaining Sophie’s and vice versa. It’s equally important to show the ramifications of her actions when she does lose control of the situations, as when Tony fails to hear her say stop during their tryst and she bites down hard on his hand.
Not only is the narrative approach centered on the humanism of the characters and their delicately textured conflicts, the technical aspects are as well. Camera movements are fluid, poetically styled and not obtrusive. Barr utilizes handheld shots to their fullest advantage, capturing the raw honesty of the leading lady’s compelling vulnerabilities and captivating, open-hearted performance in a non-manipulative manner. Cinematographer Scott Miller’s naturalistic lighting style augments Sophie’s moods, subtly transitioning from cool to warm in her safe spaces (as when she snuggles into her sister’s bed, or when she’s out on the baseball field chatting with her bestie). The blue tones highlighted in the lensing reverberates in the production and costume design without being overt. It’s a prominent color — one that mirrors the protagonist’s psyche.
Sophie’s journey toward healing is deeply felt and enriching for those who may be going through similar traumatic losses. The cinematic catharsis the Barrs and company have carefully crafted stands as a fully realized portrait of grief that’s universal in its texture. By focusing on living with the specter of grief and the discovery of its blessings, the filmmakers highlight the human struggle, breaking through to the gutting truth of the matter.
Best of Variety