TV Review - The Incredible Jessica James

James C. Strouse is a screenwriter and director. This film is his sixth feature script to be produced. It's his fourth with him in the captain's chair. All of those features have had a white, heterosexual man as the main character. His directorial debut was in 2007, so this year marks a decade or his tenth anniversary. Yet, this film breaks the pattern in some respects by making his main character a young, African-American woman who has a gay best friend. It does call a few things into question as to how Strouse can make such a pivot and hope to be authentic because what does Strouse know about being a young, African-American woman? The answer is that it doesn't matter. He doesn't need to know anything about being a young, African-American woman. That's what his star Jessica Williams (The Daily Show and Girls) is for. It's through William's performance and her simply embodying the character so personally that the authenticity shines through.

If one analyzes the script here, there are a lot of elements that are taken from Strouse's previous films, including People Places Things (2015), the film where Williams first worked with Strouse. Those elements are artists like writers struggling to make it in their careers, loss and people dealing with divorce or the separation of sexual partners. All those elements are here in this script. The non-surprising thing is that white, heterosexual men aren't the only ones who deal with those issues, so it takes no special knowledge on Strouse's part. He simply wields all his familiar elements but this time implants a black woman in the center of it. Hear that Hollywood!

Or, maybe Strouse does have special knowledge. His special knowledge might simply be a subscription to HBO. At one point, Jessica says, "I'm insecure about everything," which underscores the echoes here to HBO's Insecure, which is also about a young, African-American woman. The difference is Jessica is in New York not Los Angeles, and instead of the recording industry, Jessica is passionate about non-musical theater.

Jessica has longer hair, long and thick braids. She's very tall. She has a nose ring. She likes tea not coffee. She likes to dance in a lesbian club with her lesbian, best friend, Tasha, played by Noël Wells (Master of None and Saturday Night Live). She's all about subverting the patriarchal paradigm. She's a tough, no-nonsense woman. She's not good at roller skating, but otherwise she's dope. Jessica James in fact is very dope.

We follow her as she handles a recent break-up with her phone-decorating boyfriend Damon, played by Lakeith Stanfield (Get Out and Short Term 12). On recommendation from Tasha, she starts dating a social-media-app developer named Boone, played by Chris O'Dowd who is basically playing his character from Bridesmaids. Only, he's not a cop. Yet, he's still sweet, adorable and funny. He's recently divorced and is having trouble moving on. Jessica is having trouble moving on from Damon, so they're in the same boat.

Jessica has Ally McBeal-like dream sequences about Damon where she has tugs of war about the break-up. The movie is layered with her reflecting back on her parents breaking up and how it affected her outlook. There's also symmetry when she sees those same reflections in one of her students. Jessica is a teacher of prepubescent children in acting and theater writing. She sees herself in her student, Shandra, in more ways than one.

The tone isn't so serious as reflecting on break-ups and parental divorce the whole time. The comedy is very on point, making the whole thing actually more lighthearted than Insecure. Williams is more of an overt comedian than Issa Rae, but the performances are similar.

The movie does go for the La La Land ending. There's a bit of a contradiction about the realization about what success is but by the end the movie gives Jessica a benediction from Heaven. It isn't as bittersweet as La La Land. It's romantic for sure, but it's not contingent on whom Jessica is going to have as her boyfriend. It's more about her pursuing her passion, but in a way that works better and certainly more modern than La La Land.

Rated TV-MA.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 23 mins.

Available on Netflix.


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