Jessica James is a certified mess. A heart-rending breakup has reduced her to Instagram-stalking her ex and rebounding with an emotionally wrecked divorcee who is also groping for closure. A wall of theatre company rejection letters has her doubting her career as a playwright and lashing out at work, where she mentors kid dramaturges. And her younger sister – who, between her husband and Jessica’s own parents back in Ohio, would seem to have it all, is expecting. Barely 25, Jessica is convinced she’s missed her chance to “make it” and the idea that she could spend the rest of her life in this arrested stage of development haunts her as much as the idea of giving up and giving in to first world gender norms. It would all be so tragic if it weren’t so thoroughly relatable and risibly nostalgic.
Released on Netflix in 2017, The Incredible Jessica James is an exquisite coming-of-age dramedy – the brainchild of writer-director James Strouse. He not only taps into the insatiable sense of yearning that drove young creatives to pull up stakes for New York after the turn of the century, Strouse also hit a casting home run with Jessica Williams in the lead. Best known as one half of 2 Dope Queens and as a smart alecky Daily Show correspondent during the Jon Stewart years, Williams radiates with intoxicating, Frances Ha-level joy whether dancing on the rooftop of her Bushwick apartment, gushing about her love for theatre or dreaming about a falling piano crushing Damon – the puppy dog ex LaKeith Stanfield plays with hipster-y impotence.
To help her move on, Jessica’s bestie Tasha (Noël Wells), another randy theatre kid, sets her up on a blind date with Boone – AKA Divorced Guy, schlubbily embodied by Chris O’Dowd (an IT guy in this picture, pure). All'inizio, they seem totally incompatible; she’s a frank-talking free spirit; he eats chicken like a typical man – which, to Jessica’s palate, is even more gross than childbirth. Yet they drop their guards quickly and wind up hooking up that same night. After entering into a pact to Instagram stalk each other’s ex to help wean them off their obsessions, they’re as good as exclusive.
There is so much to love about this film. The soundtrack downshifts from fizzy indie pop around Brooklyn to death metal when Jessica goes back to Ohio for her sister’s baby shower. Jessica’s kid mentees are just the right mix of sweet and whip smart. The Tony-winning playwright Sarah Jones shows up as herself, albeit as a sort of sage on the mountaintop to whom Jessica turns seeking the meaning of life. A male Karen shows up at random in one dream sequence. It has everything an east coast creative could want in a film: sentimental Brooklyn vistas, existential dread and the odd improv exercise.
But the film’s greatest feat is how it lets Jessica just be. sì, she’s a bit professionally adrift, but she is certain of her talent and passionate about her field. sì, she’s on the rebound, but she knows she’s the rarest of catches. (“A unicorn,” she calls herself.) sì, she’s a Black woman entangling herself with a white Irishman, but the whole affair doesn’t devolve into a disquisition on interracial relationships or the “goodness” of Black men. At the end of the day she’s just another tormented millennial, desperately trying to figure out her own shit. Take note, Hollywood execs: this is what true inclusion on screen looks like. It’s a film just because. Jessica, as she herself says, doesn’t have to put herself through any of this drama. She does it simply because she must!
Of course it’s not all smooth sailing for Jessica and Chris, but the tack their relationship takes avoids the usual rom-com tropes. Throughout, Williams showcases the full range – from goddess extrovert to insecure child of divorce to laugh-out-loud hilarious. Without doubt, she proves herself more than up to the task of being a leading lady, even though subsequent projects such as the Fantastic Beasts film franchise or the HBO romcom series Love Life haven’t really extended her that chance. But there’s good news for us fans of The Incredible Jessica James. Williams and Strouse have reportedly reunited to develop a Showtime comedy series about an aspiring science fiction writer coming of age in Brooklyn. And if this new project comes together anywhere near as seamlessly as The Incredible Jessica James – a self-proclaimed sucker for “dialog-driven dramas that explore the human condition” – then odds are good Williams and Strouse’s first film will hardly be the last of their streaming gems.