Writer-director Stella Meghie makes a fine debut with this portrait of a squabbling Jamaican-American family.
The messy lives of young aspiring writers and the dysfunctional families that spawned them have long provided fertile if inevitably over-tilled material for many an independent filmmaker. If “Jean of the Joneses” feels fresher than most multigenerational ensemble dramedies, credit not only the relative novelty of an all-black, mostly female cast, but also writer-director Stella Meghie’s talent for suggesting the invisible bonds that unite her characters, despite their many disagreements and (in some cases) general disagreeability. Inspired by her own family life though not strictly autobiographical, Meghie’s endearingly acerbic debut feature is a work of modest ambition and commercial outlook, but that modesty proves intrinsic to its appeal, which deserves to be discovered at more stops along the festival circuit following its SXSW premiere.
Jean Jones (Taylour Paige), the 25-year-old Jamaican-American woman who lends the film its playfully arch title, has been hailed in some literary circles as New York’s answer to Zadie Smith. But over the course of this slender 86-minute story, we glean less of her prodigious writing ability than of her casual-chic style sense (her embroidered jackets, colorful scarves and cheetah prints courtesy of costume designer Avery Plewes) and her talent for emotional complication. The opening scene finds her reluctantly agreeing to a temporary break with her boyfriend (Francois Arnaud) and moving out of their loft, leaving her adrift and at the mercy of her family’s hospitality as she figures out what to do with her once-promising, increasingly directionless life.
First she crashes with her aunt Anne (Erica Ash), a brash, big-sister type who may be even less lucky than Jean in love, having just learned she’s pregnant from a casual fling with a doctor colleague. The possibility of bringing a fatherless child into the world looms pointedly over a story that is very much about paternal absence: The long-ago loss of Jean’s own dad seems to have stirred not just grief but a lasting rage in her distant, combative mother, Maureen (Sherri Shepherd). And then there is the old man (Ardon Bess) who shows up on the doorstep of Jean’s grandmother Daphne (Michelle Hurst) and expires on the spot, before he can personally deliver the news that he is the Joneses’ long-lost patriarch.
The sudden arrival and equally sudden death of a figure from the past is not the most original of inciting incidents (nor, in this instance, the most plausible), but it supplies the necessary excuse for Jean and the other Jones women to spend the rest of the picture ranting, quarreling and laying bare their respective hang-ups before settling into a welcome (if perhaps only temporary) detente. Until that point, additional conflict is stirred up by Jean’s aunt Janet (Gloria Reuben), who was always the most put-together one in the family but is now going through a messy split with her husband (Demore Barnes).
But most of the family’s ill temper is understandably directed at Daphne for keeping her husband’s existence a secret for so long — and Daphne, played with formidable toughness by Hurst, hurls everyone’s anger back in their faces with a sense of defiance and righteousness it’s awfully hard not to believe in. As one character notes not long after the big climax, “Sometimes when you don’t know what to do, you do nothing” — a sentiment that graciously captures the very human failing that defines not only the family as a whole, but also Jean’s inertia in particular as she wanders about, puts off writing, works at a wine bar, stalks her boyfriend from afar, and begins a flirtation with a charming young paramedic named Ray (Mamoudou Athie).
If its soft reconciliations and gently optimistic conclusion seem par for the course, this brightly assembled production (nicely shot on a budget by d.p. Kris Belchevski in Brooklyn and Toronto locations) nevertheless retains a winningly personal feel. Spending time with the Joneses is more pleasurable than you’d expect from a family this intensely bickersome, and Meghie is careful to ensure that her characters, while all spirited and outspoken, express those qualities in unique rather than uniform ways. That’s especially true of Jean, whom Paige (of the VH1 series “Hit the Floor”) embodies with an appealing mix of desire and diffidence, sophistication and naivete. You still don’t quite know how good a writer she is by movie’s end — and to its credit, it makes no grand claims for her — but she could certainly do worse than follow in Meghie’s promising footsteps.