Williams plays the title character in The Incredible Jessica James. Jessica is a self-described “coco queen” and struggling playwright who is trying to get her plays produced in New York. She teaches playwrighting to kids through a non-profit organization in “deep, deep Bushwick.” The movie is interested in the ins and outs of Jessica’s day-to-day life. The plot is nothing amazing, frankly. The storyline is perfectly adorable and Williams and Chris O’Dowd are perfectly adorable together. They are everything you would want in a rom-com couple: jilted, lonely, quirky, opinionated, and hung up on their exes.
The movie opens with a shot of Williams’ character, doing a funky, flailing dance on the rooftop of her apartment building. She blows a kiss to the awkward guy walking up the stairwell. She is exuberant. She is vibrant. She is funny as hell. Damn, she’s good. Those unfamiliar with Williams’ turn on The Daily Show will need to get a load of this movie because, frankly, her performance is a ray of sunshine!
Jessica James is the kind of NYC theatre queen who hand makes her little Ohioan sister a book called “The ABC’s of Subverting the Patriarchal Paradigm” as a baby shower gift. She is unashamed of asking her new date for a booty call and she prefers tea to coffee and painful honesty to typical first date conversation. She tells her theatre students, with dramatic flair, “We don’t do theatre because we have to, we do it because we must!”
Williams makes us believe that her character is truly dedicated to teaching her theatre kids how to write and believe in their stories. She is committed to making them honest storytellers who aren’t afraid of who they are, and she creates a safe container in which they can come as they are. Together, they close their eyes and envision scenarios. There are possibilities. Hopes. Dreams. She makes me believe that life can be more than enough, more than good. It can be great!
Writer/director James C. Strouse also directed last year’s People Places Things starring Jemaine Clement as a sad sack, down-on-his-luck white guy who is cheated on by his spouse and then falls in love with a black woman. Jessica Williams plays Clement’s new girlfriend’s daughter. She also happens to be a student in his drawing class. Clement plays Will Henry, a graphic novelist and cartoon artist who teaches art classes at a local college. There are a couple of scenes in this film in which Will delivers an inspiring monologue to Jessica Williams about the fact that her art and her craft are inspiring and that she can rise above anything to be the artist she feels called to be. Jessica Williams gives this same speech to one of her theatre kids in The Incredible Jessica James and she helps turn the kid’s life around.
The Incredible Jessica James is largely the same story as Strouse’s People Places Things. There’s a sad, struggling artist who still believes in the transformative power of creativity teaching young people how to believe in their art. There’s a relationship that ends abruptly and leaves the artist in a difficult life transition. The artist meets someone of a different race and strikes up a quirky and meaningful relationship fraught with questions. The Incredible Jessica James and People Places Things are the same cute, little movies designed to project Strouse’s conviction that the arts, and artists, must continue to thrive.
Strouse, then, has made the same film twice in a row, but the performance of Jessica Williams is the game changer. If you have not seen The Incredible Jessica James yet, you might want to give it a shot. Not for the film or the story, necessarily, but for Williams herself. Williams is, truly, a revelation and she is exactly the actress we need in the movies right now. I hope her career takes her beyond Netflix and into something more substantive. She makes me believe in the power of the arts to transform lives for the better.