Weddings. Celebrations of love and commitment in the presence of family and friends. All about the people that matter to us. But there is another side, one that makes them a perennial favourite among filmmakers – the prospect of a group of people with history of one kind or another gathered together with a few carefully selected strangers at an occasion which is supposed to be fun but also comes fraught with tension. What could possibly go wrong? Just think Bridesmaids or perhaps the less familiar Destination Wedding.
The wedding at the centre of Jess Plus None isn’t a bridezilla affair: it’s off the grid, set in a national park with most of the guests staying in tents. And the Jess (Abby Miller) of the title is maid of honour to her best friend of 20 years Mel (Marielle Scott). Trouble is, she’s not exactly in the best frame of mind for the occasion, having split up from the woman she believed was the love of her life. That, in itself, is awkward enough: knowing that her ex will also be a guest at the wedding simply rubs salt into what it still a very fresh wound. And Jess isn’t exactly the shy and retiring type: insecure, yes, and still definitely in pain so that, as the big day approaches, she becomes even more outspoken, tactless and self-centred, ultimately upsetting Mel so much that she’s asked to leave. And the bride starts to have doubts about going ahead with the marriage.
Director/writer Mandy Fabian hasn’t attempted to do anything especially original with her story. The structure is familiar, concentrating on a handful of pairings – the two men who are still getting used to being with each other, the settled couple coming to terms with being parents and the inevitable routine that now dominates their lives, and the glamourous couple who live in Europe and prove to be something of a temptation for other guests. Jess isn’t the only single – there’s the deeply unattractive Brian (Michael Dunn) who has difficulty in taking “no” for an answer – but she’s the focus of the story and, although we feel for her, there’s no denying that she’s a handful and has an unerring inability to read a room that causes disaster after disaster.
It makes for an amusing hour and a half: the tone is light hearted, the laughs are plentiful, even if they’re not overly loud, and the characters endearing, if a little predictable. Miller carries the story on her shoulders with confidence to the extent we feel we’ve all met a Jess somewhere along the line, but about half way through the film the story hits a brick wall. It’s clear Jess has to change but she’s given a narrative which, while it’s clearly meant to complement the setting, is clumsy, awkward and more than a little patronising to the spirituality involved. It feels contrived and very much at odds with the characters and the movie’s overall tone. We can only imagine what could have been and feel that it deserved better.
Comedy | Screened at BFI Flare on 22 and 25 March 2023 | Certificate: tbc | Dir: Mandy Fabian | Abby Miller, Rory O’Malley, Matt Walsh, Marielle Scott, Tate Ellington, Alexis Krause.