Sundance Review: The Incredible Jessica James – Getting Personal

Jessica Williams is a movie star. She commands the screen for all 90 minutes of The Incredible Jessica James, a movie Jim Strouse wrote and directed for her. He was right.

Jessica (Williams) is still recovering from a breakup. She gets set up with Boone (Chris O’Dowd). Both of them don’t feel ready to date yet, but this is a movie so that’s a formality for the character comedy.

Williams dances under the opening titles. It’s endearing and empowering. Usually only white heroines get to do that. Perhaps it is reminiscent of Rosie Perez in the opening of Do the Right Thing but in a more lighthearted, modern style.

The comedy in Jessica James is so observational of modern frustrations, I wonder how much is writer/director James Strouse and how much input Williams had. James takes action we all might like to take against manspreaders and Tinder dates, although it’s probably not worth the trouble in real life to show up for the date to make a point. It makes a great movie though.

Strouse also shows he’s still great with kids. James teaches theater and her students are as natural and engaging as the girls in Strouse’s People Places Things. They’re a tad older, but still young enough to require a careful touch. It also puts the “inspirational advocate teacher” trope to a healthy test.

She’s fighting the system so hard, it’s exhausting and that sort of constant battle can leave you unsure of your place. It’s also important to remember that as much as you want to make a difference, kids are still kids. They don’t want to be pursuing their goals all the time. Sometimes they want to do kid things. That’s actually something I had to learn growing up because I was the kid who was committed to writing and filmmaking so all of my activities did relate to that. I would hear friends say they want to do X and Y when they grew up, and I assumed they were as committed to it as I was. So I was surprised when they didn’t pursue opportunities just hung out. I learned that not everyone was like me and there’s nothing wrong with that. They’d find their calling in their own time, although in retrospect only a few of them did.

The issue of self-doubt remains a struggle even though I have been working at my career for 17 years now. Whether it’s fighting my bosses to prove something is worth covering, fighting the studios to prove I deserve a place or fighting the system that perpetrated the mortgage crisis, privacy, the dismantling of the education system, the health insurance system holding patients hostage, and the inevitable fights to come in the near future, it wears on you. Those are just my pet issues. There are many more worth fighting for, but it can be so overwhelming and repetitive that it makes you wonder what am I even doing here, and what good am I to a partner?

Jessica focuses on her disappointments with humor, because it’s a comedy, but that’s a pretty relatable defense mechanism. The jokes get real and she lets them divert her from her joys. Some of the lessons come in the way of characters telling her the lessons, but she still applies them on her own.

Another trend of modern movies is that so many characters are app designers for a living, movies have to invent apps that are legitimately good. The app in Incredible Jessica James should absolutely exist for kids and worried parents.

Jessica’s best friend Tasha (Noel Wells) elevates the comic best friend trope too. She is there to support Jessica, but she seems to have her own life, wants and needs too. The Incredible Jessica James reminds you that women are sexual. They like to masturbate. It’s fun and Wells has that special skill of nailing the scene without overshadowing the movie as a whole.

I didn’t expect my review of The Incredible Jessica James to get so personal. I guess I related to it more than I thought. At it’s most basic, The Incredible Jessica James is the kind of great comedic starring vehicle that Jessica Williams deserves, and we get to enjoy her excellence.

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