One of the best scenes in “The Incredible Jessica James” comes two-thirds of the way through the movie. Jessica, arguing with a guy she’s sort of been seeing, delivers a kiss-off: “I’m freakin’ dope.” That bold declaration not only represents a strong young woman but is also a gift for fans of the actress who plays her, Jessica Williams, the former “Daily Show” correspondent and current co-host of the “2 Dope Queens” podcast.
And yet the struggle is real for her character. Jessica James is a Brooklyn playwright going through a “weird transitional phase,” not really coping well with a recent breakup (her ex-boyfriend keeps coming to an untimely end in her dreams) and trying to remain optimistic as rejection letters from theater companies pile up. Those notices share a wall in her Bushwick apartment with Playbill covers, posters for old school productions and inspirational quotes from Lillian Hellman.
Her love of theater is deep, as witnessed in scenes with young students in a playwriting class she teaches. She bonds with one, Shandra (a delightful Taliyah Whitaker), who shows promise but is also processing the recent divorce of her parents. The snappy dialogue makes Jessica’s silly moments with the kids as well as heart-to-hearts with her friend Tasha (Noël Wells, just as charming as she was in “Master of None”) feel most lived-in and natural, even when she is asked to recommend a show for a friend of her mother’s back home in Ohio who’s “heard good things about ‘Jersey Boys.’” Jessica prefers “dialogue-driven dramas that explore the human condition.”
The director Jim Strouse wrote this movie, which began streaming Friday on Netflix, for Ms. Williams after she appeared in his 2015 film, “People Places Things.” The camera lovingly follows her on her adventures in the city, and it’s easy to see why he was inspired to give her this breakout role.
Her character’s forthrightness draws in friends and intrigues potential suitors, including the recently divorced Boone (played by a scruffy and slightly goofy Chris O’Dowd). They are complete opposites but find themselves in bed after an awkward first date. Their courtship involves an elaborate plan to break free of the obsessive cycle of stalking their exes on social media. The solution: Each will follow the other’s ex.
But this is Ms. Williams’s movie, and she owns it. (Though, with its strong ensemble — Lakeith Stanfield plays her ex — I kept thinking it could make for a smart series.) She’s a radiant, tall glass of dopeness and isn’t afraid to tell you so. And in New York City, isn’t that how the strong survive?
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