Reviewed by Lesley Coffin
A truth too few directors seem to understand is the fact that to make a film universally identifiable, you have to be (as James L. Brooks once said) “be so specific, no one can judge.”The lesson is one too few directors take to heart; that by being as detailed as possible with characters and relationships, the universal experiences which connect people will come through regardless. Try and be representative of too many, and a film will often fall flat, failing to make the world feel lived in or authentic.
But one of the year’s best directing debuts shows once again the value of displaying such specify on screen. Writer-director Stella Meghie’s feature Jean of the Joneses premise could seem pedestrian based on the familiar basic premise about a 20 something refusing to grow up and dysfunctional family forced to confront truths after an unexpected death. But the beauty of the film comes with the details Meghie layers one after the other. So by the end, the film you feel like you’ve slept in a warm bed topped with a comfy old quilt from your grandmother.
Only appropriate for a film about a multigenerational family of women anchored by Jean’s strong-willed grandmother. Specifically, of Jamaican lineage (just one of the many details Meghie includes to add to the characters world), Michelle Hurst is wonderful as Daphne. Critical, opinionated, and sometimes downright mean as she throws around her thoughts about her daughters and granddaughters, Hurst infuses the roles with maternal love…even though it seems buried too far for them to see. No wonder her three daughters lash out, often only uniting to offer more criticism of their mother. Gloria Rueben’s Janet is a success in the self-help world, married but separated with two daughters. Youngest daughter Anne (played by Erica Ash) is a nurse who has had a string of relationships with married men. And then there’s Sherri Sheperd’s Maureen, giving the best performance of her career, whose daughter Jean is all grown up.
Jean is played by Taylor Paige, whose leading role should be her star-making performance. Fast, funny, charming as hell, with the perfect voice for Meghie’s dialogue and overwhelming quality of cool, this is the perfect fit for an actress and character. Like Jenny Slate’s performance in Obvious Child or Greta Gerwig’s Francis Ha, the inspired casting feels not just like a perfect fit, but a character tailor made for Paige. As Jean, she seems to be revealing far more in her performance than what is already in this wise, smart, script, infusing the moving with depth and honesty one might not expect. As played by Paige, Jean feels like a young woman using her wit and confidence to hide the confusion and pain of growing; specifically with a warped view of success, romance, and men she’s been taught by the women in her family.
Jean of the Joneses relishes being not just about women, but about the family dynamics of women. Each of Jean’s relationships with her female family members is unique to how she was raised and their age, making it clear that Janet’s daughters will have a completely different kind of relationship with their aunts than Jean did. The film’s interest in women and female relationships, however, doesn’t narrow the interest to just being about women. Their view of men, and specifically how they relate to men because of how they were raised, is a major theme throughout the film. And how Jean will come to see a potentially good, healthy relationship which is something none of the women in her family have ever managed to accomplish. The Get-Down‘s Mamoudou Athie is as charming as a young Tom Hanks as a paramedic, potential boyfriend.
The remarkably strong, chemistry-rich cast is just one of several pleasures of a movie like Jean of the Joneses. The cast, as rich and witty as one by Whit Stillman is another that helps the film stand out as a winner. But Meghie also clearly has an eye (and ear) for design, and how to layer one on top of the other subtly. Nothing stands out as simple window-dressing, but the character specific costuming and set design tells the audience about the character’s place and lives, beyond simply what they’re saying. Each apartment Jean migrates to (after breaking up early on with her boyfriend Jeremiah played by François Arnaud) is a window into the personal lives of each of her family members. Likewise, the choice of music, used throughout as subtle background music, creates a link between the dialogue’s rhythm tone and the film’s slick editing style.
The wonderful thing about Jean of the Joneses truly is just how universal Meghie manages to make a film which simultaneously feels personal and intimate. The characters are critical of each other and full of personality problems…but so realistic and honest, easy to warm to and ultimately women you find truly lovable. Lacking cliches and pandering, the movie shows a director confident in her own storytelling abilities. And storytelling which while happening to focus on the lives of women, and specifically women of color, goes beyond that definition to look closer at their complicated inner lives and relationships. Jean of the Joneses is a treat if you see it (it premieres on TV One October 23rd and hopeful elsewhere soon), but regardless, it’s undeniable that Stella Meghie and Taylor Paige are two women to watch for in the future.
Lesley Coffin: Is editor and founder of Movies, Film, Cinema. A writer with a masters degree from NYU’s Gallatin School in biographical studies and star theory. She wrote the biography on Lew Ayres (Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector) and Hitchcock’s Casting (Hitchcock’s Stars). Lesley currently freelances as a critic and interviewer for a number of sites, including regular contributions to The Interrobang, Pink Pen, and Young Folks, and previously wrote for The Mary Sue and Filmoria. (Twitter handle @filmbiographer, website lesleycoffin.com)