There is one thing that romantic comedies seem to have in common: they’re mainly about white women losing themselves over a man’s affection. They usually have a black best friend supporting their woes and constantly encouraging them to go after “the one.” However, we rarely get any movies with women of color in the center. The Incredible Jessica James might be the one to change that. Jessica James is so great because it proves that a black woman isn’t just the best friend; They are their own leading ladies and have just as meaningful stories as their white counterparts.
The Incredible Jessica James stars the incredible Jessica Williams as the titular character. She is a struggling playwright in New York with her only income coming from teaching children acting classes and the occasional catering gig. She also isn’t doing well in the dating world after dumping her boyfriend of two years and struggling to keep off his Instagram account. When her friend, Tasha (Noel Wells) sets her up on a blind date with tech wiz, Boone (Chris O’Dowd), Jessica finds herself striking a close friendship (and possibly romance) with him.
The film is obviously Williams’ chance to prove that she is more than a Daily Show correspondent. She is fierce and unapologetic, never holding back what she thinks. She is also never afraid of showing off her feminist values, constantly encouraging the young women around her to succeed (she gives her sister a book called “The ABC’s of Feminism” at her baby shower). Williams’ personality dominates the screen and makes her character refreshing and unique. However, besides her snarky quips, there isn’t much else to her character. There is a scene where she visits her estranged family, but their problems are barely touched upon. There is obvious tension between them but nothing concrete is shown. The film also falls victim to typical romantic comedy tropes such as living in an expensive apartment with no income, trying to get over a bad breakup, and “looking for love in all the wrong places.”
However, director and screenwriter Jim Strouse tries to put the focus on Jessica’s drive. We see her wall of rejection letters from theater companies, but she never needs saving from anybody. O’Dowd’s character is a little on the bland side, but that’s actually a good thing. Instead of focusing on how she’s going to get the guy, the audience is focused on how she is going to achieve her dreams because that’s the more interesting plot point. She and O’Dowd do share some chemistry, but he is only a side-quest in her journey for greatness.
The Incredible Jessica James may fall victim to some romantic comedy cliches, but it’s also very inspiring to all women of shapes and sizes. You don’t need a man to complete your dreams; he’s just a nice bonus in the end.
This is a reprint from the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. To read more coverage from the fest, go here.