The 2017 Sundance Film Festival chose a great film to close with, not to mention Jessica Williams’ breakout role in “The Incredible Jessica James.” This wonderful indie rom-com will easily be one of the memorable festival closing weekend screenings. Williams is also emceeing Sundance’s film festival awards, so the former “Daily Show” correspondent is quite the star of the weekend.
Director Jim Strouse says he’s a devoted fan of Williams’ stand-up, as well as her podcast with Phoebe Robinson, “2 Dope Queens.” He was inspired by what he labels “Jessica-isms” when he wrote the script for “The Incredible Jessica James.”
The movie infuses elements of Williams’ comedy with the director’s experiences with breakups to create a new-generation romantic comedy. That’s why the main character is named after both Williams and Strouse, says the director/writer of the film that was acquired this week by Netflix.
THE INCREDIBLE JESSICA JAMES
Jessica Williams delivers a vivid, star-making performance in the relationship comedy The Incredible Jessica James, the Festival’s closing night feature from director Jim Strouse. Williams plays the straight-shooting title character, a New York City–based aspiring playwright who, while grappling with a painful breakup, begins casually seeing an equally plain-talking phone app designer (Chris O’Dowd), who’s just gone through a wrenching breakup of his own. The two help each other navigate past their lingering pain and learn they might be falling in love.
After the screening, Strouse confessed that he’s been a fan of Williams since her work as a correspondent on The Daily Show, and he got to know her well after he cast her in his 2015 comedy People Places Things.
“I thought we were a good match,” he said. “I knew how to write things that sounded good coming out of her mouth, and I just wanted to keep doing it.”
Strouse’s screenplay can be viewed as a valentine to Williams, who is in nearly every scene and effortlessly commands the screen in her tailor-made role. She demonstrates unexpectedly palpable chemistry with O’Dowd, whose sincere, romantically yearning character isn’t dissimilar to the one he played in Bridesmaids.
The director explained that he enjoys creating funny stories about romantic failures.
“You have to think about chemistry in your leads, but I also think about how these people are funny and if they make each other laugh,” he shared. “I smiled just picturing Chris and Jessica together.”
His instinct was a good one, he noted. “Once they got together, they were best friends and made each other laugh,” Strouse added. “There was mutual respect for how funny they were and for making each other laugh.”
GOOK: A KOREAN AMERICAN PERSPECTIVE ON THE 1992 LA RIOTS
What exactly is the NEXT section at the Sundance Film Festival? The programming team hears this question about the category a lot, and “the real answer is that there’s no real definition,” explained senior programming manager Adam Montgomery at the 2017 Fest’s final screening of Gook. “It’s new works from new voices telling fresh and inventive stories that you might not see in the traditional studio system. And I don’t think there’s really a better example of that in our section this year than Gook.”
The black-and-white film follows Korean American brothers Eli and Daniel, who own a struggling shoe store in 1992 Los Angeles. Kamilla, a fiery 11-year-old black girl, is always hanging around their store instead of going to school, but her family doesn’t approve of her friendship with “those gooks,” and the clash between the two families comes to a head as the Rodney King riots threaten the city.
Justin Chon, the film’s writer, director, and star, revealed that the story is partially based on his own family’s story: his dad owned a shoe store in Paramount, California, and they got looted on the last day of the 1992 riots. Justin was 11 at the time, the same age as Kamilla.
In casting the role of the young girl, the film team first “auditioned a bunch of Nickelodeon and Disney stars, and they didn’t quite cut it,” Chon said, which got some giggles from the audience as they thought about the tough-as-nails, inner-city kid who doesn’t exactly talk the same way a Disney kid would. The film team eventually reached out to black churches in the greater Los Angeles area and found Simone Baker, who makes an impressive feature film debut that will absolutely rip your heart out.
Chon noted that Asian-American males and African American females are two of the most underrepresented demographics in film and television, so creating prominent roles from those two perspectives was one goal that he had in mind for this project. Additionally, he wanted to break the stereotypes for the Asian American men that do appear on screen.
“A lot of the roles that I do go out for, I play a tech nerd, best friend, gay guy, or a mixture of all three: tech best-friend gay guy. Growing up, I knew plenty of these guys, just blue collar, just trying to make ends meet. They had no desire of running a Fortune 500 company; they just wanted to get by. I rarely see that in film, so that was a big objective of mine.”
In speaking about the impact, he hopes this film will have, Chon remarked that, apart from making audiences reflect on how far we have or haven’t come since the Rodney King verdict, he also wants to make real change in Hollywood. “In the last few years there’s been a lot of talk about diversity in Hollywood. And being an ethnic actor, that’s really a lot of all it’s been, is talk. I feel that the most effective, fastest way to make any sort of difference in our communities is to create. And that’s been my mantra for the last few years. So this is my two cents, my contribution to the conversation, and to the Asian American narrative.”