"I always take from my life in some way," explains Sophie Jones director Jessie Barr, and that philosophy extends from the themes of her projects to co-creators. Om City, the acclaimed webcom she made with husband Tom O'Brien, drew from the couple's experience running a yoga studio. She tapped a best friend from college to star in the award-winning short Too Long at the Fair that's currently being developed as a series. And with Oregon-shot Sophie Jones, Barr collaborated with her younger cousin, Jessica Barr, who also stars as the titular heroine. The film allowed them to explore a shared experience: suffering the loss of a parent as an adolescent.
The result is an absorbing portrait of a teenage girl's benumbed maturation following her mother's death that drifts through the stages of grief with tenderness, dark humor and an assured grace. The movie debuted at last year's prestigious Deauville American Film Festival and was then picked up for distribution by Oscilloscope Laboratories. Following its premiere this month via video on demand as well as virtual screenings hosted by selected theaters—including Portland's Hollywood—WW spoke with Jessie Barr about her feature debut.
WW: So, the film began with your cousin, Jessica Barr?
Jessie Barr: So, yeah, my cousin and I were both named after our great-grandmother Jessica Primrose Barr. She was 20 when she sent me an early draft of the script, and I was so moved. It was inspired by her experience losing her mom. We both lost a parent when we were 16, so it's a very personal story.
What happened after you read that initial draft?
We started writing it together and worked very hard talking through what the character was feeling. It's definitely a film about grief and girlhood and growing up. Since the loss came at a time when all those things were happening at once, there's a lot of seeking and exploration. You're searching for who you are and throwing yourself up against things and seeing what makes relationships feel right, what personae make sense. We really dug into our vulnerabilities, attempting to share that honesty through the film, and I'm very proud of the truthfulness she brought to her work. We shot it in her actual childhood home.
Did you know she could act?
I'd seen a couple clips, but knew she had inner depths and a very watchable quality. It was less about performance than accessing truthfulness. We needed to work on her vulnerability, but because I am an actor and really love working with actors, I believed we'd be able to get to a place where she could share that onscreen. It was definitely a risk, but because of our shared history and experience, there was also a lot of trust.
What about the rest of the cast?
Since she'd never really acted before, I wanted to make her as comfortable as possible by building off of actual relationships. I found a lot of the younger actors by incorporating people she already knew into the film. "Claire" is played by an actual friend of hers named Claire.
Were there problems depending on so many non-actors?
I don't really like that term. They're all acting in the film—even Jessica's playing a version of herself. So much of what we did was about creating a safe space for them to improvise and feel comfortable riffing off of each other.
It all had to happen so quickly in terms of production timing and location availability, but it was really important to me that I got to know who the cast was as people. I tried to make things as naturalistic as possible and have them understand how we could use the imaginary circumstances without feeling like they had to deliver a certain reaction for a certain line.
The film was shot in Portland, but was it set here? You avoid the usual locations, and everything's so bright.
It's funny. A lot of the Oregon films have mist or rain—think, like, the Twilight movies—so I thought it'd be interesting to see a different side of the environment. You might think a story about grief has to be rainy and dark, but the really sunny scenes added a nice juxtaposition while dealing with the heavy subject matter. Also, we shot in the summertime, and the city happened to be very hot. You just have to embrace what's happening. That was the mantra of this film.
Was it difficult to revisit the death of your parent?
I never talked about losing my dad until I made this film, so there was an opportunity to be the person I needed when I was younger and transform pain and suffering into something beautiful and hopeful—sharing our stories, our hearts, our truths with other people. It's not a documentary, not a re-creation, but something else. And, like all films, it becomes larger than any one person, which I find so beautiful. It becomes something that belongs to everybody.
SEE IT: Sophie Jones streams on demand.