2017 Sundance Film Festival London: The Incredible Jessica James Review
When we first meet Jessica, she isn’t feeling so incredible. On the rebound from her ex, Damon (Lakeith Stanfield), she arranges dates in the hope he will appear and explode into a jealous fit of rage. Which he doesn’t of course. When he does show up, accompanied by his new girlfriend, Damon is pleasant and polite, happy to see Jessica out enjoying herself. So that’s Plan A thrown right out the window. If Jessica is unsure on where her life is heading at the moment, she has no trouble convincing us to lend an ear. After hearing her first few lines of dialogue, this smart and vibrant woman has you hanging on her every word.
Fans of The Daily Show will probably be aware of Jessica Williams, but for anyone else this will prove to be an eye opening experience. She is a real force of nature, given a character that is funny, educated, warm and complicated, topped off by her winning smile. That a black female comedic lead isn’t cornered off into a lazy stereotype is one thing. But the fact the writer/director (Jim Strouse) behind this wonderful character is a white male makes it even more of a rarity.
An aspiring and passionate theatre playwright writer, Jessica keeps the lights on by leading a kid’s theatre group, a project she injects with as much energy as anything else she does. She exudes real confidence that borders between extreme likeability and irritation, depending on who she is speaking to. We’re cheering her on every step of the way, watching as she heads off to another blind date, this time with the older and recently divorced Boone (Chris O’Dowd). You wouldn’t exactly call it love at first sight, but their shared sense of honesty keeps them orbiting each other’s lives, while they both try to pick their way through the emotional wreckage of their recently failed relationships.
Director Jim Strouse keeps the tone light and refreshingly funny throughout, consistently pulling out punchy gags that hit their mark. Sharp dream sequences and witty flashbacks take us into Jessica’s inner-life, adding dimension to a character you would love to spend more time with. While O’Dowd and Williams compliment each other with ease, this is very much Williams’ film, effortlessly charming the pants off the audience with her confident delivery and brilliantly judged comic timing. The supporting cast is equally as strong, with Noël Wells chirpily playing Jessica’s best friend Tasha, and while Lakeith Stanfield isn’t given too much to do (aside from an excellent fall from a window ledge) his calm demeanour is always a welcome presence.
Relationships and romance play their part in Jessica’s world but pleasingly her journey isn’t defined by her slow burning connection with Boone. Finding out who she is and what she can achieve turns the film into a fully rounded character study that re-energises old rom-com tropes. Netflix snapped this up at Sundance in Utah earlier this year and such is the whirlwind nature of its lead, you could easily see it transformed into a successful TV series. Either way, she leaves such an impression that you can’t wait to see her onscreen again. If we didn’t know who Jessica Williams was before this release, it will certainly be a name to keep a close eye on for quite some time.