by Elizabeth Stoddard

Writer/director Stella Meghie’s narrative film Jean of the Joneses premiered Sunday evening at SXSW. The bittersweet comic drama stars Taylour Paige (VH1’s Hit the Floor) as Jean, a young writer flummoxed after a break from her boyfriend Jeremiah (François Arnaud) and attempting to make sense of the women of her family.

Her grandmother Daphne (Michelle Hurst, Orange Is the New Black) is quick to note the faults of others, yet won’t admit her own. Mother Maureen (Sherri Shepherd, 30 Rock) is brusque and impersonal with her daughter. Jean’s aunts have problems as well: Janet (Gloria Reuben, ER) is separated from her husband and Anne (Erica Ash, Survivor’s Remorse) tends to get involved with the doctors at her work. When Jean’s grandfather suddenly appears back in their lives (in a fashion), long buried truths are unearthed.

As the sardonic Jean moves from relative’s house to relative’s house, loathe to accept the end of her relationship, sparks fly between her and cute paramedic Ray (Mamoudou Athie, soon to be seen in Netflix’s The Get Down). Given that Paige as Jean and Arnaud as Jeremiah lack any chemistry — the opening scene of their separation is the clunkiest this film gets — the viewer is definitely rooting for Jean to hook up with Ray.

Along with Meghie’s script and its blend of biting wit and considered pacing, it’s worth seeing Jean of the Joneses to watch these actresses shine. The reasons for the strains in the family relationship come to light as the story moves along. Sherri Shepherd is especially impressive; her comic talent is known, but her character’s subtlety in a poignant moment with Jean moved me to tears. I’m happy to see Reuben in anything, and she’s great as cold aunt Janet. Erica Ash’s loud weeping at a wake made the audience continually burst into laughter. Meghie creates these characters, the actresses introduce them to us, and the stylish costuming and jazzy score help place us in their upper-middle-class Brooklyn world.

Jean of the Joneses is an unexpected joy among the features on this year’s SXSW schedule. I’m happy I was able to attend the feature debut of this director destined for great things (if this film is any sign).

Jean of the Joneses screens again Wednesday, March 16, 4:15PM at Alamo Ritz 2.

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