Director Jessie Barr’s debut feature film, Sophie Jones, is a film distinctly about a place.
Over a video call with a relatable spotty internet connection, Barr shared how that place is both a literal physical space while also being an emotional one. The physical place is Portland, with many recognizable locations in and around the city. The emotional one is the state of youthful turmoil that comes from trying to grow up in a world upended by loss.
It comes from a deeply personal place. When Barr was 16, her father died of cancer. She began the process of making the film 16 years later—at the time in her life when she had been alive without him for as long as she had been alive with him. She started making Sophie Jones after receiving a script from her cousin, Jessica Barr, whose life had also been inextricably impacted by loss.
“The initial seed of the idea really came from my younger cousin who has the same name as me, we’re both named after our great grandmother,” Barr said. “We both share the loss of a parent at the exact same age. I was 16 when I lost my dad. and she was 16 when she lost her mom.”
The film, out now in virtual screening rooms, is in many ways an artistic process of working through their collective grief. It is about losing someone so central to your life that everything is forever changed by their loss.
“I had run from that truth for most of my life,” Barr said. “I really never dealt with that grief. I never really danced with it.”
Sophie Jones focuses on a slice of life in the character of Sophie, a 16-year-old struggling to find her own way after the death of her mother. Sophie is played by Jessica, though the character speaks to truths central to both cousins and their own lives.
“The heart of it was this character of Sophie, which was sort of a version of [Jessica],” Barr said. “I felt immediately that this was also so much of my experience as well.”
The film’s setting—Portland—is also fundamentally crucial to both the narrative and the experience. The place is about our associative memories and for Barr, she formed her own connection to the city in the process of making the film.
“I fell in love with Portland, it’s just such an incredible place,” Barr said. “The natural beauty is just so evocative and so unlike anything, honestly, I’d ever seen.”
“I knew that had to be a part of the film and weaving that in narratively for me was a way to link the memory of Sophie’s mother,” Barr added. “I just imagined that these spaces this family would go to had been spaces they would go to as a unit. There was a way for them to all connect with her spirit in those places. That really just came from being awake and alive to the actual place.”
The shoot was just 15 days carried by independent funding, which meant the filmmakers looked to the community of people that live in the city itself to help them along the way. That also meant tapping into a talented local group of young actors who instill the film with an authentic life. Sophie Jones, save for the character of Sophie’s father, is entirely made up of actors based in the city.
The result is a film that is distinctly—yet subtly—Portland, with the location serving as an incisive backdrop to Sophie’s painful yet cathartic experience of growing up.
“It was really important to me that this be about Sophie’s experience and her journey,” Barr said. “She’s trying to, as we all do, find ourselves by throwing ourselves at things and at people. She’s trying on roles. Trying to be the aggressor, being awkward, trying on this persona.”
Barr emphasizes the film is distinctly not a love story in the conventional sense, even as characters feel love and emotional intimacy for each other.
“It’s part of her processing her grieving and her becoming,” Barr said. “The main relationship in the film is her and herself. It really wasn’t about finding someone else to complete you.”
Barr added that she still is doing her own reflecting and processing of the narrative. She started making the film long ago, and is only now getting to see how other people engage with the story.
“The feelings have been transforming throughout the three years it has taken to bring this film to the world,” Barr said. “To be honest, I’m only just now starting to process it because it is also art that feels like it has been dormant for so long because we couldn’t share it.”
As for Portland, Barr said she would want to get back to the city she fell in love with as soon as she could.
“I’m dying to,” Barr said. “I want to get back there really bad. I want to live there at some point. It really has captured my heart and it’s a really important place because of this film, because of family, because of the people.”
You can stream Sophie Jones via the Hollywood Theater.