What makes BAMcinemaFest one of New York’s most exciting film festivals is its spotlight of ultra-independent American cinema, the kinds of films that aren’t likely to ever come to a theater near you. In the case of Jim Strouse’s The Incredible Jessica James, though, we have a film that’ll be available for the viewing public at large on July 28th, yet will never again play on the big screen. Netflix’s online burial chamber of its acquisitions may seem reasonable on the basis that that’s how most audiences will see them anyway and that they’re too minor-key to warrant that kind of spotlight. The same sense of sidelining and rejection, incidentally, rests at the heart of the vivacious and hopeful The Incredible Jessica James, a small wonder whose simple magic need not be shrunken by the dinky computer and phone screens you’re reading this on.
A well-deserved showcase for The Daily Show standout and 2 Dope Queens podcaster Jessica Williams, we’re introduced to the titular James while she’s emphatically dancing to sick Keegan DeWitt beats from her apartment to the rooftops, placing us in a world of heightened NYC fantasy. Real life, however, is some degrees south of fantasy for Jessica when we find her, still wounded after a recent breakup, and struggling to make her playwright dreams a reality. Several identical theater company rejection letters adorn her wall, an odd reminder of how she’s just another typical New York statistic. It’s tough to know if that’s meant as f***-the-world encouragement or an attempted wakeup call for herself.
Even at work, though, Jessica James is still dreaming, feeding the creativity and imagination of students she’s teaching to realize their own playwright ambitions. These scenes are where we get the clearest, brightest indication of the joy and fulfillment she derives out of the theater, bouncing unapologetically against a bunch of receptive kids, each made special and glowing by being given center-stage. If anything pulls The Incredible Jessica James above the ranks of similarly marginal NYC comedies, it’s how Jim Strouse and D.P. Sean McElwee (Dance Party U.S.A., This is Martin Bonner) lend Jessica and the characters around her a hearty spotlight. It’s simple, but warm and emotionally generous, not defaulting to passable shot-reverse-shot terminology.
In all aspects of James’ stalled, but not stifled, life, Strouse finds delightful ways of livening up everyday tedium. He turns James’ sister’s baby shower into a death metal parade of tastes that conflict hard with Jessica’s, who gifts her sisters with “The ABCs of the Patriarchal Paradigm”, a book you’ll want to own the moment you know it exists. He gives a sense of awkwardness and slightly creepy tension to an adorable split-screen phone conversation with James’ sweet rebound Boone (Chris O’Dowd, sadly not in any of your “Who’s the best Chris?” polls), wherein we believe for a moment that this charming lug is stalking Jessica. The spare moments of intimacy we see between Jessica and her angelic lesbian best friend (Noel Wells) become their own kind of love story, probably more enduring than her fulfilling new beau. The loveliness in The Incredible Jessica James comes from its ability to prioritize the feelings and relationships that matter, not sweating over petty grudges and everyday self-doubt.