Jessica Williams, as the eponymous heroine of “The Incredible Jessica James,” refers to herself as a unicorn. Her playful remark is in the context of an amorous evening she’s just had with a new friend, played by Chris O’Dowd. But it could also be an apt way to describe this delightfully warm-hearted film.
A comedy centered around a multi-dimensional African-American woman who is smart, funny, vulnerable, sensual, wise, proud, charming, flawed, resilient, well-educated, an inspiring teacher and a loving friend feels almost like the cinematic equivalent of a unicorn. And the fact that this complex character was written and directed by a white man dials up the rarity quotient.
Writer-director Jim Strouse had cast Williams — known best for her clever comic reports on “The Daily Show” — in his previous film, 2015’s “People, Places, Things.” Strouse has said he was so impressed with Williams’s talents that he wondered why no one had written a movie expressly for her. So he did it himself. The result is this engaging character study, the closing night film at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
It’s a pleasure to see Williams in a lead role and playing a character not confined to movie tropes like “sassy best friend.” Instead, she inhabits a strong, complicated, achingly honest woman who reveals some insecurity, but whose confidence is her over-arching trait.
It’s a star-making turn. Her incisive comic timing, withering looks and mega-watt smile are familiar to late-night TV viewers, but it’s her impressive acting range that stands out here, marked by vulnerability, complexity and an easy chemistry with co-stars — both the actors playing her young students and the ever-affable O’Dowd. In short, Williams is a revelation.
While there is certainly romance and comedy here, “Jessica James” gently subverts the romantic comedy genre by being more about finding oneself and one’s voice than attaining lasting love. Jessica pursues her professional passion with even more zeal than she does romance. She has a wonderfully natural friendship with a fellow striver, an actress endearingly played by Noël Wells (“Master of None”).
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Jessica stumbles upon romance in a way that feels organic, credible and lovely; whether the couple will end up together is anybody’s guess. In other words, this is the kind of rom-com we should be seeing in 2017: one that feels authentic and more accurately reflects the lives of real women and men. Relationships can be messy. Our careers can take off or not, at any given moment. Familial bonds are complex and emotional. All of this comes through in just the right pitch in Strouse’s consistently entertaining film.
Living in a working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn, Jessica is a playwright whose big break hasn’t happened. She is, however, so prolific that her notebook of penned plays looks as if it weighs 10 pounds. She cherishes a personally-written rejection letter that calls her writing “eloquent” on a wall with more pro forma correspondence received since moving to New York from Ohio.
Jessica has been smitten with the theater since childhood. Perhaps for that reason she is a theater instructor for children, determined to nurture in them the dedication she feels to her art. She is particularly intent upon drawing out the writing talents of her shyly brooding student Shandra (Taliya Whitaker). Among the young actors, Whitaker makes a strong impression.
While Jessica happily pursues her artistic vision, her sister is taking a more traditional path. Jessica clearly loves her, but doesn’t fit in with her strait-laced set of friends. Case in point: She shows up at her sister’s baby shower with a hand-written children’s book entitled “The ABC’s of the Patriarchal Paradigm.”
She’s also just come out of a two-year relationship and is still smarting from her breakup with Damon (a terrific Lakeith Stanfield, also at Sundance with “Crown Heights”). In the film’s earliest scenes she’s a master of TMI, whether on a Tinder date or at a posh event where she’s serving champagne to wealthy arts patrons. In an effort to emotionally cut ties with her ex, she makes a pact on a blind date with Boone (O’Dowd) to unfollow her former boyfriend on Instagram, as he does the same with his ex-wife.
But Jessica is no heartsick, distressed damsel. Wryly funny, candid and determined, she uses her pain to fuel her work. In a jubilant opening scene that also sends up rom-com conventions, she dances off her woes, starting in her apartment, up a few flights of drab stairs and onto the roof. Imaginative scenes featuring her former boyfriend are particularly hilarious. While several comic scenarios center on Jessica and Boone’s awkward encounters with their exes, it’s also noteworthy that no one is painted as villains. They’re all just people for whom things didn’t quite work out. Life goes on.
Across the board, the ensemble cast is markedly likeable. O’Dowd and Williams are one of the more adorably appealing on-screen couples in recent memory, deadpan and droll in different ways that complement each other winningly.
While the story has a disarming and subtly woven message of female empowerment that audiences (especially women) will warm to, the film is above all a showcase for Williams’s many talents, and a testament to her ability as a vibrant leading lady. “The Incredible Jessica James” is an enchanting, deftly-written and witty movie for lovers and haters of romantic comedies, as well as for all those in between.