The Heart of “The Incredible Jessica James” Is the Platonic Love Story Between Jessica and Her Lesbian Best Friend

I don’t know about you, but it rained almost the entire first week of August where I live. Over half of July was sunny and in the 90s, and then out of nowhere — KABLAM! — days after days of downpour. That turned out not to be such a bad thing; I spent a summer afternoon cuddled on the couch, eating vegan chocolate ice cream and watching The Incredible Jessica James on Netflix. And let me tell you, this movie is surprisingly sweet, bright, and optimistic in all the right places.

In a lot of ways, The Incredible Jessica James is a standard paint-by-numbers romantic comedy, the kind that people well-versed in the genre have seen a thousand times before. But underneath its breeziness are engaging questions about the power of friendship, the subtleties of feminism, and the strength it takes to go after your goals.

I am getting ahead of myself. Before I tell you any more about the movie we absolutely must talk about its magnetic star: Jessica Williams.

I became a Jessica Williams faithful in 2015, when an internet petition for her to take over The Daily Show — after three years of working as a contributing correspondent to the program — went viral and took over my Twitter timeline. She’s best known for her brand of satirical comedy that focuses on socio-economic injustice, racism, sexism, and homophobia. Williams also launched the popular podcast 2 Dope Queens with Phoebe Robinson. They use comedy and social justice to frame pop culture critiques and ruminate on daily life. I hate to make the obvious pun on its name but the podcast is…. Super… Dope. It’s worth checking out. At only 27 years old, Williams is already doin’ the damn thing.

In the movie, Jessica Williams plays the titular Jessica James, who spends the opening credits dancing around her Bushwick, Brooklyn apartment like it’s a ’90s sitcom. She’s a mid-20something theater geek and aspiring playwright who pays the bills by working at a non-profit that teaches drama to public school kids. I’d describe her more, but it’s probably better to let her introduce herself. In one of the first scenes of the movie, Jessica point blank tells a date: “Look at me: I’m tall, I’m pretty, I’m smart. I’m a cocoa queen. Obviously, I will have many loves in my life”. Really, is there any more to say?

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Her BFF Tasha (Nöel Wells, Master of None) is Capital G Gay. Tasha is the kind of queer woman who refers to straight sex as “hetero-ing” with a face of confusion that one might have if they ever saw the Loch Ness Monster ahead in the distance, fascinated and mildly distressed. We’re going to talk more about Jessica and Tasha’s relationship in a minute; their friendship is the engine that keeps the whole movie running.

In the hands of a less charming actress, Jessica James could easily be intolerable. She’s more than a bit self-centered, and sometimes her blunt tone — while hysterical to watch from the audience — can make her appear like an ass. She once told a Tinder date, “I would literally rather have my period nonstop for a thousand years” than continue spending time with him. And that was her being nice. Lucky for us, Williams is perfectly cast so instead of being appalled by Jessica, you will find yourself rooting for her as we follow along on her New York adventures.

Jessica’s ex-boyfriend, Damon (Keith Stanfield, Atlanta and Get Out) continues to haunt her. She can’t stop daydreaming about having melodramatic fights with him, before he dies in a fit of cartoon violence (my favorite involves a piano falling from the sky). To help out her friend, Tasha sets Jessica up with Boone (Chris O’Dowd, Bridesmaids), a recent divorcé who is also feeling insecure about the dating game. Jessica and Boone bond as friends with benefits and form a pretty fun Breakup Support Group together before slowly turning into a satisfying enough romantic relationship. Most reviews of the Incredible Jessica Jones will tell you that the movie is about Boone and Jessica. And they are WRONG. The heartbeat of this movie is two-fold: Jessica’s relationship with Tasha, and Jessica’s job mentoring school children.

As a playwright, Jessica hasn’t really found her footing yet. She tapes the rejection letters of her scripts to her kitchen wall, and let’s just say, there’s not a lot of space left. She loves theatre more than anything else in the world, but she’s terrified that it doesn’t love her back. Still, she doesn’t give up. It’s out of this love that she teaches theatre to young students. And, damn I love watching her work with those kids.

It’s in their black box stage that Jessica is most in her element. As someone who spent her entire youth as a theatre geek in rooms like this, I can also attest these scenes are so incredibly authentic. I recognize the safe space she’s creating and I know what salvation theatre can provide, especially for those of us who were “different” in our childhood. Those of us who were chubby, or brown, or wore glasses and had gaps in our front teeth. Theatre can change lives, and I know it because it most certainly changed mine. And it changed hers. And now she wants to help change it for them. Jessica takes a particular interest in her star pupil, Shandra (wonderfully played by Taliyah Whitaker, best known as young Suzanne from Orange is the New Black). It’s these students that stay with you long after the movie is over.

This is a romantic comedy, but let’s be real: Sometimes the best love stories are platonic. And this is definitely one of those times. Tasha and Jessica spend their nights out at Metropolitan, a gay club in Williamsburg that I personally spent FAR too much of my 20s in. They have sleepovers together in a bed full of pillows and a more than a few stuffed animals. They discuss the pros and cons of luxury vibrators. They’re nonchalant about their sexuality, confident in their bodies, and their chemistry together is an absolute joy on screen. I adore them.

More than anything, they are sweet, gentle, and respectful with each other. Jessica and Tasha deserve a spot right next to Abbi and Ilana of Broad City when it comes to the great friendship love stories of our time, with one notable difference. Whereas Abbi and Ilana’s heart tends to lay underneath their acerbic wit, Jessica and Tasha’s warmth is the first thing you notice about them. Their wit comes through that warmth. In its third act, the movie’s only true declaration of love comes from Jessica when she bursts into the coffee shop where Tasha works as a barista.

Jessica has finally received her first acceptance letter; she’s been invited to the Donmar Warehouse Theatre in London. Tasha is so happy that she literally jumps over the bar counter, screaming, and leaps directly into her best friend’s arms. The smile on her face is broad and bright, it could shoot straight to Jupiter. Jessica tells Tasha that she now realizes the truth. When she left Ohio for New York she wasn’t only running away from her family, she was also running toward her family. A family that she didn’t know yet, one that she got to build and choose for herself. She looks Tasha straight in the eyes and doesn’t blink, “I love you. You were the first person I wanted to tell as soon as I found out the news.”

The movie’s climactic scene plays out one might expect from a romantic comedy. It’s the graduation ceremony of Jessica’s youth theatre program, and both of the film’s central male love interests are present to vie for her attention. There’s a small, yet delightful feminist twist in its final moments that I loathe to spoil for you here. I will say that it made me laugh out loud, stand up from my couch, and cheer.

Jessica once asked her students, “This is your one and only life. What do you want to tell people about it?” Movies and television shows about the transitions of young adulthood can be a dime a dozen. The overarching theme of most of them is that shit’s hard, you know? We fall on our face A LOT. But, with unconditional friendship, a commitment to what we are most passionate about, and a willingness to mentor those who are coming up next— I think we might just make it through.

Jessica James was released July 28th on Netflix, which means you can find it right now. And I really think you should. Pull out a pint of ice cream, fluff your pillows, and get ready to dig in.

Carmen is Autostraddle's Deputy Editor and a black Puerto Rican femme/inist writer. She claims many past homes, but left the largest parts of her heart in Detroit, Brooklyn, and Buffalo, NY. There were several years in her early 20s when she earnestly slept with a copy of James Baldwin’s “Fire Next Time” under her pillow. You can find her on twitter, @carmencitaloves.

Carmen has written 247 articles for us.

14 Comments

  1. Thanks for this wonderful review. The movie was delightful and I could easily watch an entire tv show that is just Jessica James teaching kids theatre. To me those were the best parts of the movie.

    I also had such chills when she met her idol at the writers’ retreat who basically told her to stop wondering when she would “make it” as she was already doing what she loved. So inspirational <3.

  2. This is a wonderful review! I absolutely loved this movie! Slight spoilers ahead.

    The scene I connected the most with was when she went back to her hometown and had to adapt to their expectations while trying to stay true to herself. I feel that exact same thing when I go home.

  3. Everything about their friendship is so cute and lovely!!! The scene where she hops the counter is amazing! Especially because the counter is about as tall as she is, but like the enthusiasm and love is so strong

  4. For some reason I thought this was a TV show when I first started watching it, and it took me a little while to figure out it was a movie. I was a little bummed that it meant I’d only get an hour and a half instead of a whole season. But I really liked the movie. And it gave the most believable reason I’ve ever seen for how a mediocre white guy might end up dating a gorgeous, smart, funny, woman like Jessica.

  5. I haven’t watched yet and though I’ve heard wonderful things about it, and am a big Jessica Williams supporter, I am hesitant because of the choice to cast Noel Wells as the lesbian best friend. As far as I know and can find from google, Noel herself is straight (please correct me if this is incorrect!). While that alone does not disqualify her in my opinion from playing gay, I have a recent personal experience that left a very bad non-ally taste in my mouth from her. At a Q&A after a screening of her new film Mr. Roosevelt, I asked about a character, Liz, in the film who seemed very queer, and also seemed to be flirting with Noel (who played the main character) but in the end the character ended up being straight, and nothing ever came of the initial signs that pointed to her being a huge queer. When I asked why that is the direction the character took, Noel responded that she didn’t want that character to have any “ulterior motives” and just wanted her to be a supportive female friend. Though she didn’t say it explicitly, it felt heavily implied that Noel believed that if the character had been queer, she would have been a Predatory Lesbian. So the fact that this straight woman who clearly has prejudice against queer women was cast to play the lesbian best friend is Extremely irksome to me.

  6. I liked this movie for many of the other reasons you mentioned and it’s always nice to see a friendship with a lesbian character but this one felt tokenistic and the least developed part of the movie for me.

  7. So last night I was on Netflix and saw this show and thought “Oh, cool, wonder if it’s any good?” So I Googled “autostraddle jessica james” because apparently I only trust autostraddle writers’ judgments of pop culture? Anyway nothing came up and I was sad, but today my prayers have been answered! Thanks Carmen!

  8. Thanks for this review – it helped me put my finger on what was so wonderful about this movie and left me wanting more. Though Jessica is acerbic with the men she encounters, the warmth and gentleness of her friendship with Tasha and the open-hearted relationship with her students make the film unforgettable.

    Just more. I want more of Jessica Williams in films like this.

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