(Image via Netflix/Beachside)
The Incredible Jessica James is one of the best films I’ve seen all year that I didn’t have to travel to the movies to go see (Note: This is a lie, as I saw Okja in a theater while I was out in Los Angeles). I remember hearing great things about the film when it premiered all the way back at Sundance, and was disappointed to hear that it wouldn’t screen at SXSW. Nevertheless, I was happy to hear that Netflix was going to pick the film up for distribution on the streaming platform. Getting indie films released into theaters nowadays is unfortunately getting tougher and tougher due to competition from Hollywood, so I’m happy that smaller films like this one are available on a large format like Netflix. Jessica James is one of the best independent films of the year, as well as one of the funniest and most real, and I think you’ll dig the film when you see it.
Jessica Williams, who we all loved as a correspondent on The Daily Show, plays the titular Jessica James, a 20-something aspiring playwright living in New York City. Jessica is still trying to get over her break-up with Damon (Keith Stanfield) from a few months back. Jessica’s best friend Tasha (Noël Wells) sets her up with Boone (Chris O’Dowd), a recently divorced and single man, and their relationship sets up the remainder of the film and the journey that Jessica goes on.
The film was written and directed by Jim Strouse, who has collaborated with Williams on some of his earlier projects and wrote the film with Williams in mind for this lead role (The New York Times did a terrific profile on Williams earlier this month detailing her career and how the film came to be), and the finished product shows. Williams was easily one of the best correspondents to come out of The Daily Show, and when I read that she would be leaving the show to launch a career of her own, I had high hopes for what her first project would be, and the film proves that Jessica Williams is now a full-blown movie star. She’s charming, confident, hilarious, and then some. There’s very little chance of Williams getting some Oscar attention for this performance (the Oscars are super lame anyways), but if I had it my way this performance would be in that talk.
I also appreciate how Williams portrays this character that feels all-too relatable with every artist who feels as if the world doesn’t appreciate them the way they want to be appreciated. But James never gives up or becomes cynical toward the idea, as she continues to persevere, even when life drags her down a bit. While she becomes incredibly cynical to the idea of dating again (who wouldn’t?), she continues to stay true to herself as an artist, and to the students that she teaches at an after-school program in NYC.
One could argue that we’ve seen Chris O’Dowd play this character before as the charismatic and charming love interest, but he’s so damn charismatic and charming on-screen that it ends up working out great. The film might feel formulaic at times with its story, but the performances are so good and the chemistry between the actors is so good that complaining about a formulaic story feels nit-picky and unnecessary (see what I did there?). It should be worth mentioning that Noël Wells, one of this year’s breakout stars thanks to her brilliant film Mr. Roosevelt (which I really, really hope gets distribution one of these days) is great in the film as Jessica’s best friend Tasha. She isn’t in the film all that much (save for a handful of scenes), but Wells is a great actress, and I’m happy to see her in more stuff nowadays.
The Incredible Jessica James is, well, kind of incredible. It doesn’t really add anything new to the romantic comedy genre that we haven’t already seen before, but the writing is really sharp and funny, and the performances by the actors, with Jessica Williams being the stand-out of course. Williams no longer needs to be known as the former Daily Show correspondent, and after seeing this film, I see a bright future for Ms. Williams, who’s just as incredible as the character she plays in the film.