“Sophie Jones” opens on its titular protagonist, played by Jessica Barr, as she fiddles with a bag of cremated remains. She rubs the ashes between her fingers, revealing a piece of fragmented bone which she raises experimentally to her mouth to taste. Bad idea. She spits it out and puts it back in the bag.
Such is the dark, charming nature of this coming-of-age film, directed by first-timer Jessie Barr (Jessica’s cousin), co-written by the star and director, and executive produced by Nicole Holofcener. Like a teenager itself, “Sophie Jones” is equally maudlin and cheerful, equally self-indulgent and self-deprecating. Though the film occasionally gets distracted by flowery setpieces, it is overall a refreshing, deeply human meditation on girlhood, sex, and grief.
The film takes place shortly after Sophie’s mother’s funeral, in her junior year of high school, and ends just before she leaves for college. In the wake of her grief, Sophie tries to distract herself by emotionlessly hooking up with boys. In these relationships and in all her interactions with friends and family, Sophie navigates a constant push and pull with vulnerability. The ash-eating incident sets a precedent for this: Sophie wants to feel close to her mother, but not that close. She wants to laugh about blow jobs with her best friend, but she doesn’t want to hear said friend’s concerns. She wants sex to be meaningless, but it just isn’t.
Director Jessie Barr illustrates each of these contradictions with care and little judgment, allowing lead Jessica Barr’s performance to fully round out the character. In a less skilled actor’s hands, Sophie’s many improvised quirks and caustic remarks could render her insufferable, but Jessica Barr turns this character into something truly special. At the heart of the film is that timeless teenage foible – the belief that the world revolves around you, and resulting fallout when it turns out it doesn’t. But even when Sophie is objectively behaving like an asshole, Barr plays her with stark humanity. She has astounding chemistry with everyone on screen, most notably Claire Manning, who plays her best friend, and Skyler Verity, who plays her main love interest. The world may not revolve around Sophie, but this film certainly revolves around the genius of Jessica Barr. Sophie may be terrified of vulnerability, but Barr offers a gutsy performance that unquestionably defines the film.
This is no doubt thanks in part to Jessie Barr’s naturalistic direction and a likewise game cast of supporting characters. Cinematographer Scott Miller captures each frame in soft, muted hues – there is a shamelessly feminine aesthetic at work here, but thankfully no pandering or posturing. There are no lines calling out the gendered double standards of sexual promiscuity. Jessie Barr trusts the viewer’s intelligence enough to let us intuit those nuances on our own.
There are a few moments where the film tests the limits of its indie-ness, most notably a scene where Sophie and her sister take artistic photographs with the sympathy flowers sent after their mother’s death. On the whole, though, “Sophie Jones” is exactly what it needs to be: A quiet, brilliant film, elegant in its smallness. In the overstuffed indie coming-of-age subgenre, “Sophie Jones” makes an unassuming, honest contribution. Which is exactly what it needed to do to stand out among the endless pomp and quirk. [A-]
“Sophie Jones” recently had its world premiere as part of the Deauville American Film Festival.