Coming-of-age movies come along in droves every year, and it takes something special to be able to stand out from the crowd. Sophie Jones manages to do just that, by utilizing an approach that values authenticity above all else. The directorial debut of Jessie Barr, the film centers on the titular Sophie (played by the director’s cousin Jessica Barr) as she tries to navigate the world of high school and family life after the death of her mother.
Jessie Barr’s naturalistic approach to the film envelopes you in this world, placing you back in the headspace of being a teenager, regardless of your gender. While Sophie is dealing with very specific circumstances, there’s something universal to the mixture of awkwardness, narcissism, and defensiveness that she contains within her. One of Jessie Barr’s greatest strengths is that she doesn’t bend over backwards trying to make Sophie lovable for the audience, and Jessica shows no restraint in being able to lean into that. Particularly in the modern era, coming-of-age movies tend to veer towards the quirky, almost manic pixie dream girl types that are instantly charming and easy to win an audience over. Sophie is more difficult than that, which might put off some audiences, but it makes her substantially more real.
This authenticity extends throughout the entire picture. Even the costume design is striking, with Sophie wearing different variations of the same clothes throughout the film. She’ll wear the same pair of overalls that we saw before, this time with a different shirt underneath. Her room is adorned with pictures that feel like they really belong to a teenage girl, rather than the overly manufactured set dressing that we’re used to seeing. The towel bar in her bathroom squeaks obnoxiously loud when she goes to dry her hands. These may all seem like small details, but they stand out as demonstrations of Sophie Jones, the film, feeling as though it actually exists in the real world.
Over the course of the movie we see Sophie’s relationships with many people, including her family, her best friend Claire (Claire Manning), and a number of boys. What’s interesting about the storytelling approach to these characters is that none of them dominate the storyline too much. The way that the script integrates them, weaving them in and out as if they are pieces who can disappear for several scenes without us really noticing, reminds one of how fleeting these friendships and relationships can be when we’re teenagers. You lose touch with someone, or have a falling out over something silly, and then link back up weeks later, picking back up as if nothing happened.
While Sophie is grieving the loss of her mother, she turns to boys as a coping mechanism, fixated on the idea of losing her virginity. This is a trope of many a high school coming-of-age tale, yet Sophie Jones doesn’t give it the pomp and circumstance that we’re used to seeing. This quest isn’t the driving force of the picture, and we don’t get an extensive, detailed scene of the event when it does happen. That’s not what this movie is about. Even as the film focuses a lot of attention on Sophie’s relationship with Kevin (a very charming Skyler Verity), the movie never feels like it’s about a boy. This is Sophie’s story, one driven by her and no one else.
Everything in the film, from the emotionally loaded arguments to the physically intimate scenes, is handled with a bluntness not often present in coming-of-age films. The director and star being cousins might have made things awkward for them to shoot together, but instead it seems as though it made it easier for Jessica to be vulnerable in this character. Neither of them have much experience that we’ve seen on screen, and yet this feels like a story they were born to tell, as the two co-wrote the script and brought a lot of their own life experiences into the film. That closeness to the story, and to the character, aids in our ability to empathize with her, even when she’s being abrasive or disagreeable.
Sophie Jones may have the surface of any standard film of its subgenre, but it’s more than worth watching thanks to that emotional honesty that Jessie and Jessica Barr bring to the table. The great Nicole Holofcener is an executive producer on the film, the first time she has ever produced a film that she didn’t write or direct, and her stamp of approval is a demonstration of how rewarding an experience this film is. In a lot of ways it’s easy to see why Holofcener would have connected with the material, as the characters contain the same kind of honest, complex personalities that often inhabit her films. They’re not the easiest to get along with, and there’s something brave about presenting characters who are simply real like that, unafraid of forcing a leading female role to be some flawless angel in order to make her more palatable to the audience. Sophie Jones succeeds where others often haven’t based on the value of putting authenticity first.