Portland International Film Fest 2020 Review: Life Looks Different After a Death in Jessie Barr’s Vital “Sophie Jones”

If Jessie Barr’s tender coming-of-age film “Sophie Jones” didn’t feel enough like a breath of fresh air already, it feels especially so when exhaling no longer comes naturally to its titular character (Jessica Barr, the film’s co-writer and the director’s cousin). A teenager living with her older sister Lucy (Charlotte Jackson) and her father Aaron (Dave Roberts), it can feel as if all the trees in the Pacific Northwest are taunting her in the wake of her mother’s death, with the crisp air they throw off in Portland only feeling cold and all the space she’s been given by others to grieve only serves as further isolation.

However, neither Sophie nor Barr is one to let pain consume them and “Sophie Jones” finds a dynamic story at the intersection of sudden loss and raging hormones for its protagonist, who must venture forth into a more adult world without anyone she can comfortably confide in – Lucy makes clear, at her only slightly more advanced age, she doesn’t want to be seen with her younger sis. Old enough to know better, but without the experience to know what’s ahead, Sophie only has half-developed notions of what she wants, but fully formed ideas about how she can attain them, telling friends with confidence about plans to lose her virginity and informing her grief counselor that she hasn’t been cutting herself or drinking, so she’s totally in control of things.

Of course, she’s not, and as Sophie tries to dictate the outcome of situations by more brazenly announcing her intentions, the Barrs mine the awkwardness of the gap between how she expects things to turn out and what reality has in store for some big laughs, tempered by the wise observation of how grief can enable Sophie to act impulsively as much as it inhibits her from actually engaging with anyone. The film generously invests in the people around Sophie to show how working through her emotions, she doesn’t realize how she’s impacting others, and while “Sophie Jones” never falls prey to a romantic roundelay where its lead is faced with picking the right guy who will solve all her problems, it finds her flirting with a series of potential prospects in Kevin (Skyler Verity), a friend of her drama club pal Riley (Tristan Decker), who also clearly has affection for her, and Tony (Chase Offerle), who word has it that he’s had a crush, that provides an opportunity to learn about what she likes and what she doesn’t, gradually becoming as conscious of their feelings as her own.

Reminiscent of Andrew Bujalski’s loose-limbed breakthrough “Funny Ha Ha,” which saw its heroine struggle with post-collegiate ennui, “Sophie Jones” is propelled by Sophie’s seemingly endless chase after the right way to articulate herself but has to be careful about what she says as a form of self-protection, taking shape as she becomes more comfortable expressing herself. With a hand in crafting her own dialogue, Jessica Barr brings a naturalism to channel the nuances of overcompensating in certain ways to make up for the deep sense of loss she feels in addition to being an engaging screen presence in her first film role, and Jessie Barr’s direction is equally impressive, allowing the complicated nature of grief to emerge organically and when it’s least anticipated, beautifully capturing the moment when the fact that life goes on changes from a seemingly insurmountable burden to an inspiration.

“Sophie Jones” is awaiting its festival premiere. A schedule of future screenings is here.