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Sundance Film Review: ‘The Incredible Jessica James’

Variety logo Variety 1/20/2017 Geoff Berkshire
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Some people are born to be movie stars, and “The Incredible Jessica James” successfully makes that case for leading lady Jessica Williams. Best known as a former correspondent for “The Daily Show,” the assertive actress commands every frame of a vehicle that feels built to transport her to even bigger and better things to come. It’s the sort of ingratiating crowdpleaser that would’ve sparked a modest bidding war at past Sundance festivals. But even in a less frenzied atmosphere, the film (which serves as this year’s closing night selection, yet screened for press on day one) should be able to land a distributor savvy enough to maximize its commercial appeal.

It almost feels like a throwback to see a breakout star headline a modest relationship comedy for the indie film crowd at a time when many of Williams’ peers are making their mark on the more expansive canvas of television. Any contemporary film about a young woman navigating life in a big city is going to draw comparisons to Lena Dunham’s “Girls” and Issa Rae’s “Insecure,” and there are even nods, intentional or not, to Donald Glover’s “Atlanta” and Aziz Ansari’s “Master of None” in the casting of co-stars Lakeith Stanfield and Noël Wells.

But instead of screwing with or straight-up demolishing conventions in the style of any of those series, writer-director Jim Strouse (“Grace Is Gone,” “The Winning Season”) places Williams at the center of a thoroughly conventional indie narrative — trusting his star’s sensibility to freshen up otherwise stale scenarios.

Fortunately, Williams delivers on every count. Smart, funny, and beautiful, she’s a force of nature who carries herself with more than just confidence; she’s got a fully justified swagger. As she tells smitten suitor Boone (Chris O’Dowd) at one point: “Of course you [like me]. Everybody does. I’m freaking dope.” That Williams sells that line without even a threat of losing the audience’s trust is a measure of how far she can go as an actress.

Of course there’s more to “Jessica James” than just Jessica Williams being freaking dope. But not that much. Williams’ eponymous heroine is a frustrated 25-year-old playwright, who lives in “deep Bushwick” and indulges her love of theater by helping public school kids write and stage scenes for a nonprofit. She’s also struggling to get over a bad breakup with her boyfriend of two years (Stanfield), when her best friend (Wells) sets up a blind date with app designer Boone.

He still carries a torch for his ex-wife (Megan Ketch), but the mutual heartbreak and penchant for real talk he shares with Jessica leads to a string of sexual encounters and a budding romance. At the same time, she makes steady progress in her professional life, be it an encouraging rejection letter or a fateful meeting with her Tony-winning idol Sarah Jones (playing herself).

“Jessica James” dips its toe into a lot of different waters — breakup movie, rom-com, buddy picture, career-girl comedy — but never takes a full plunge. Instead the thrill is all in watching Williams own the screen, and find moments to hang loose with equally likable costars O’Dowd, Stanfield, and Wells.

It’s too bad the movie is too lightweight to give us a real sense of James’ voice as a playwright — there’s ample time spent with the kids she mentors, which only ratchets up the cutesy quotient, and not enough on the character as a writer — but at least Williams’ own voice comes through loud and clear. If nothing else, Strouse, who had worked with Williams in a smaller role in “People Places Things,” knows how to capture his star’s unique rhythms and infectious appeal.

Visually the film falls in line with Strouse’s previous low-key character pieces, although an energetic opening dance number featuring Williams freestyling solo in her apartment sets a higher aesthetic bar the rest of movie can’t touch.

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