A major movie studio did not release the best new movie for the weekend of Friday, July 28, 2017. Netflix did when The Incredible Jessica James came online and did not hit the big screens or theaters! The film stars Jessica Williams, whom most progressive viewers (pablum puking liberals to haters) are familiar with as a news correspondent from The Daily Show. Sundance Film Festival followers may also be familiar with her as being the uncomfortable focus of Salma Hayek and Shirley Maclaine’s condescending interaction during a business lunch. This film is the one that garnered Williams’ praise and attention at the festival, which apparently is not enough to get distribution in theaters.
The Incredible Jessica James uses a lot of conventional, sitcomesque, narrative techniques and transitions to create a hilarious, casually intersectional, postmodern and subversive feature comedy. The titular character is a zealot of truth and the theater, which can be off putting to some and deliciously relatable to others. If she is likable, it is because you enjoy who she is, but she is not trying to be affable or concerned with people liking her. She can actually be aggressively intrusive in her interactions. She knows who she is, but she is trying to find some security in her personal and professional life, reconcile her past experience with her present desires, and there is no singular career track for being a successful playwright.
I was a huge fan of the first season of the YouTube series, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. I watched the first episode of Insecure, but I knew that the two shows were completely different in tone even though they shared the same creator, Issa Rae, whom I am delighted is finally getting the shine that she deserves even if I am not currently watching her HBO series. The Incredible Jessica James is closer in spirit to the YouTube series in the way that it effortlessly weaves home, work, friends and relationships into one organic tapestry that feels like following a life instead of a story. The characters do not feel like tropes even if the situations are trope adjacent: trying to get over a bad breakup, having a cheerful best friend, going to a baby shower. What makes this film unique is that the characters’ insecurity is confidently expressed. They unapologetically embrace expression of the moment, and the stories have subtle twists that only get revealed later in the film, but not in some gimmicky M. Night Shylaman way, which side note, I also love.
I have not been a fan of Jim Strouse’s work. He wrote The Hollars and directed Grace Is Gone. They were films that I wanted to like, but ultimately found lacking. Sprouse’s directing and writing in The Incredible Jessica James is distinctive and has an endearing personality. In one early scene with the titular character and a prospective love interest, the characters finally connect, and Sprouse reflects that by showing close ups of the two mirroring each other’s body language, moving closer to the other and putting down germane distractiona. In another scene, he uses a phone call scene as a perfect opportunity to pan his camera away from the caller and instead focuses on the apartment’s walls to reveal her personality. There are no wasted moments in the film. A lot of films that are dialogue heavy forget that they can use visual language to communicate the story.
A lot of movie watchers forget that too and multitask while watching movies at home or on the go. It is aggravating to know that because I watched The Incredible Jessica James at home even though I was trying to give it my full attention, it was impossible to watch it without interruptions so I did not notice everything. It is not the same as watching a film in a darkened theater with nothing else to do but focus on the screen. As a result, a lot of people, including me, are going to miss a lot of neat visual cues that we will take for granted, but advance the story in a seamless, textured way. We know what people are seeing because we get a projection of the smartphone screen next to the character. We know a character’s mood based on the opening credits. We see what the kids and the titular character are imagining in their acting exercises and what subtly changes depending on their interaction. The dream sequences and the visual representations of what it is like to write a play are similar and not altogether distinctive from reality, which says a lot about the nature of the life of a writer. Other reviewers complain that the film does not show who Jessica James is as a writer, but we are shown it. We don’t see it because of the way that we are seeing the film. So I would admonish you to turn off the lights and lower your ringtone when you watch the movie otherwise you are going to be leaving a lot of meat on the bone. It is a gorgeous film, and it is set in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, New York City, so treat the film with the respect and attention that it deserves.
Even though kids act in the movie, The Incredible Jessica James is not a kid appropriate movie. There is a lot of sexual content, but little to no nudity or sexual depictions. There is not a lot of profanity. It is casually pro-LGTBQ without being heavy handed. The kid actors are not Star Search, preternaturally mature or freakishly lab created cute creatures, but normal kids. If you are concerned about the transition from Jessica Williams as comedian news correspondent to actor, do not be. She is so engaging and magnetic that my mother who was just passing through and knows nothing about her, remarked, “She has an amazing voice.” The chemistry of the cast is phenomenal. Lakeith Stanfield, who is well known for his appearances in Get Out and Short Term 12, only appears briefly throughout the film and provides the credible backbone for some of Jessica’s angst. Chris O’Dowd and Noel Wells as the titular character’s potential love interest and best friend respectively are fully formed three-dimensional characters who are a part of, but independent from her world.
The Incredible Jessica James is a film that lends itself to repeat viewings. Not since Party Girl have I so enjoyed and related to characters whom I do not share many similar characteristics with, but empathized with their passions, joys and concerns. I did appreciate that despite others repeatedly classifying this movie as a rom com, the film, particularly the ending, denies us a tidy, happy and unrealistic ending and centers the trajectory and denouement of the film on the titular character’s inner journey and ambitions, not her relationships. It begins where it ends, not being defined by relationships, but on a journey to fulfill uncertain ambitions on an unknown destination at a junction where the past, present and future collide to create a unique identity that empowers others to move forward and find her voice. I want a sequel or a series. I want more Jessica James.
Sarah G. Vincent is an infovore who is originally from NYC and has lived in Massachusetts since 1993. She received an A.B., cum laude, in History and Film Studies from Harvard University in 1997 and received a J.D. from Harvard Law School in 2000, where she was also an editor and arts reporter at the Crimson/FM and worked at the Harvard Film Archives. After graduating from Harvard Law School, she published “The Cultural Context of the Shopping Mall: Tension Between The Patron’s Right of Access and the Owner’s Right to Exclude.” She is in a committed, exclusive spiritual relationship with the Triune God and for more information, directs readers to look at the Apostle’s Creed.