Jess Plus None: BFI Flare 2023 review

Year: 2023

Runtime: 101 minutes

Written and directed by Mandy Fabian

Actors: Abby Miller, Marielle Scott, Rory O’Malley, Matt Walsh, Alexis Krause, Tate Ellington, Craig Thomas, Shalim Ortiz, Asenneth del Toro, Scott Speiser, Michael Dunn, Scout Durwood

By Sarah Manvel

It’s unclear how old this group of shakily connected but long-term friends are supposed to be. The plot revolves around them coming together for a weekend wedding in a remote California campsite over Labor Day weekend 2021. Though there’s plenty of booze and hiking, and everyone has the clothes and shoes for all eventualities, there’s no Wi-Fi. There’s also not a lot of emotional maturity here, even making allowances for a group of friends who regress to high school level when they see each other again. The main message of “Jess Plus None” seems to be that you have to take care of yourself before you can ever be successful in a relationship. But if that really is the message, something is garbled in translation.

Jess (Abby Miller) has a boyfriend she doesn’t much like, and she only tells him he’s not joining her when she’s in the car halfway there. Almost all the other guests are coupled up. Pete (Rory O’Malley, scene-stealer) is getting serious with the slightly older ex-Marine Vince (Craig Thomas) in spite of himself. World-famous rockstar Hugh (Shalim Ortiz) has a cute new girlfriend/manager named Rita (Asenneth del Toro) who no one has met before or makes much of an effort towards. Nate (Tate Ellington, quietly excellent) and Wendy (Alexis Krause) have a six-year-old Nate dotes on, though it’s pretty obvious Wendy regrets becoming a mother. The only single people are the bride’s loathsome brother Brian (Michael Dunn) and the groom’s sister Sam (Scout Durwood), with whom Jess had an atrocious breakup about a year ago. (And how nice it is to see a movie, even at BFI Flare, in which the heroine’s bisexuality is so completely accepted that it passes completely without comment.) But Jess is really not over the breakup, which the opening scene of her, ah, pleasuring herself while calling Sam’s name makes abundantly clear. Jess’s treatment of Sam is a large reason, but not the only one, of why Jess has been sidelined from the wedding preparations of Melanie (Marielle Scott) and Greg (Scott Speiser) despite still being the maid of honor. Shortly after the wedding they are relocating, for Greg’s work, to Tokyo, which is common knowledge around the picnic table but a blindsiding revelation to Jess. As the weekend continues a few more unpleasant truths come out.

The immaturity and codependency on display would be just about bearable if these characters were in their twenties, but since they’re all in their mid-thirties it’s more alarming than adorable. Only Greg, whose financial success and unwillingness to discuss his emotions are sneered at by the others, seems to be capable of acting like an adult. He wanted a Hawaiian wedding, but since Mel insisted on this rustic setting, complete with a communal eco-toilet, he’s cheerfully footed the bill and is determinedly enjoying himself. The others are having a harder time, which is entirely their own faults. Wendy and Pete are a catty, gossipy pair of bitches, immediately bringing out the worst in each other and both afraid of the life choices they’ve already made. And the lack of Wi-Fi has Jess, a social media manager, going completely out of her gourd. She even hikes down to the nearby ranger station, where the ranger himself (Matt Walsh) is unhelpful and contemptuous. Of course, he’s not wrong. Jess is a compulsive talker prone to blurting out obvious little lies and inappropriate truths; it’s a wonder she was invited at all. Ms Miller does incredible work in a ridiculous part, turning a smelly narcissist into a loveable rogue one admires more than pities. But it’s a very fine line. 

This weekend is Mel and Greg’s big farewell before their massive international move; it’s understandable they’d want the gang together for a last hurrah. On the other hand, why has Mel hung onto these friends from her youth who don’t like her partner and aren’t super nice to her either? Writer-director Mandy Fabian seems to be using the Hollywood shorthand of the old neighborhood to skip over this obvious question. But there are so many other people in the world, and a group of adults who choose to hang onto friendships well past their expiry date are always a little worrisome. In spite of that, the ensemble comes together very well, bringing a real careworn feel to their friendships and how they are interacting again, capably supported by Sevdije Kastrati’s crisp cinematography.

Until the big finale, that is. One plot twist is unbelievable and the other is ludicrous, and each calls the sanity of a major character into question. Ms Fabian seemed to have preferred silly melodrama and public oversharing to anything resembling emotional truths. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! But the ending sense of compromise and resignation on what is meant to be a happy day comes through strongly, which is a surprise. On the other hand, adulthood means making choices, and having to accept the consequences. It really shouldn’t be taking anyone into their mid-thirties before coming to terms with that.


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