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.
Set in the social-media era, the story follows Jessica, a 20-something aspiring Brooklyn playwright, as she attempts to get over a breakup.
The first scene shows the woman on an awkward Tinder meetup, made more awkward by her bold pronouncements. Later, while on a fix-up date with a scruffy divorced guy, Boone (Chris O'Dowd), an app developer, the pair agree to exchange their exes' Instagram feeds.
The movie is a low-key character comedy that, unusually, focuses on a bold African-American female protagonist. It defies rom-com expectations with a surprising ending, but it also plays as a story set in Obama's America.
Jessica uses honesty in a way that feels fresh and frank. Even though the black woman is quietly getting to know a white guy, the movie isn't focused on race. "It doesn't need to be part of this story," the director says. "It's not about race, it's about Jessica."
"Smart, funny and beautiful, she's a force of nature who carries herself with more than just confidence; she's got a fully justified swagger," wrote Geoff Berkshire in a Variety review.
"Her incisive comic timing, withering looks and megawatt smile are familiar to late-night TV viewers, but it's her impressive acting range that stands out here, marked by vulnerability, complexity and an easy chemistry with co-stars," writes reviewer Claudia Puig in The Wrap.
Strouse considers it a portrait of a young woman on the cusp of a creative career. "It's a snapshot of her becoming the full-fledged sophisticated adult she will become," says the director of earlier Sundance films, including 2007's "Grace Is Gone" (which won the Audience Award for Drama) and 2015's "People, Places, Things."
Williams had a small part in that 2015 movie, and in the editing room Strouse says he was repeatedly knocked out by the performer's charisma.
That's what led him to write "Jessica James," his love letter to Williams' talent. He recalls sitting at his computer working on the script and laughing as he channeled the character's voice. He tried to capture the actor's graceful physical presence — she's 6 feet tall, as well as being "movie star beautiful."
"It would make me so happy if this were a useful calling card to her for more work," the director says. "I think Jessica carries this film beautifully. We've seen her act before, but I really think she nails this."