JULES is a wise and gentle comedy-drama about the vicissitudes of aging and the balm of a really good listener. There’s also a UFO and its extra-terrestrial pilot thrown in for good measure. Gifted with three well-tempered performances by Ben Kingsley, Jane Curtin, and Harriet Sansom Harris, it takes a clear-eyed approach to the issues confronting the trio, going dark, to be sure, but never allowing them to lose their humanity or their hope or their sense of humor.
Kingsley is Milton, the resident crank in his small Pennsylvania town, lobbying the town council at their every meeting to change the town’s slogan because “a good place to call home” is confusing about just what the verb implies. The idea of calling home, a crashed alien repairing his vehicle, and a government agency tracking the strang visitor from another world is not a coincidence, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
After his latest address to the polite but patently uninterested council, Milton is awakened from his slumbers by a flash of light and a loud crash. That would be the UFO that delivers the alien and crushes his azaleas, two incidents of equal import to Milton. When he attempts to report what’s happened, he’s brushed off by the authorities, and chastised by Joyce (Curtin), one of the other regulars at the council meetings where she is continually lobbying for pickleball, after Milton adds the UFO that is still in his backyard to his regular litany. Joyce is irked that statements about UFOs will make people take them less seriously, but the other regular, Sandy (Harris) offers Milton a ride home during which she asks if he’s okay.
He’s not, but the spacecraft in his backyard is the least of his problems. He’s getting forgetful, putting canned goods in the medicine cabinet, and worrying his busy daughter, Denise (Zoë Winters), who dutifully tends to her aging father without actually giving him any company. Fiercely independent, uncomfortable and slightly formal around others, Milton’s lonely life changes when the alien emerges injured from his craft a few days later, and Milton offers it refuge.
Milton accepts the alien on its own terms, showing it around the house, explaining family photos and the mysteries of terrestrial plumbing as the delicate, graceful little gray humanoid regards him with expressive eyes, an impassive expression, and full, patient attention. Dubbed Jules by Sandy, and Gary by Joyce after they both stumble onto Milton’s houseguest, the three acquaintances become unexpected friends, and in Jules, they find a kind of confessor as Jules watches them with curiosity unpolluted with judgment as they reflect on their lives past and present. In the alien makeup is actress Jade Quon, whose body language is eloquent in its refined minimalism. She creates a distinct personality for Jules without words, one that is recognizable, but profoundly, ahem, alien, even when doing something as mundane as eating a slice of apple.
Kingsley and Curtin take difficult characters, he’s stubborn, she’s caustic, and they find piquant ways to play them for both laughs and for empathy. There is dignity in their cussedness, and vulnerability. It is Harris, though, who becomes the heart of the film as a nurturer in an empty nest putting on a cheerful face to keep moving forward. She has a smile that can break your heart and then make you laugh.
As unconventional as it is surprising, JULES takes the small aggressions heaped upon the elderly by even the most well-intentioned people and turns them into a sly fable about people facing the last act of their lives in a culture that doesn’t know quite what to do with them.