Marc Turtletaub’s “Jules” begins with its focus on Milton, an elderly man played by the always great Ben Kingsley.
We watch as Milton attends a meeting in his small town and, day after day, has a chance to speak but undermines his stance on issues by saying the exact same thing every time. Milton’s life and mind are slowing down, which concerns his daughter and makes him an odd figure to the younger people around him.
One night, a UFO crashes in Milton’s yard, and he barely registers the event. The next day, Milton instinctively cares for the wounded extraterrestrial he finds in his backyard and attempts to keep the alien, which he names Jules, a secret from others in his community.
“Jules” is a gentle film, with a sci-fi twist that sneaks up on you. The title character is an impressively designed, silent and eerie alien who develops as a potent figure. Nevertheless, the film’s measured pace and focus on character over incident puts this in a different category than most sci-fi comedies.
This is nothing like “Paul” (2011) or “Cocoon” (1985) but has a lot in common with the wonderful “Robot and Frank” (2012) and tonally similar “Phenomenon” (1996).
The former a kindhearted fable about getting old (and showcasing a wonderful Frank Langella performance). The latter is another fable about small town regulars dealing with the unknown.
Kingsley has been so brilliant for so long, he gives great performances like this one that go overlooked because, well, he’s Ben Kingsley, of course he’s excellent!
The star, whose Best Actor Oscar winning turn in “Gandhi” now seems like a wrist-cracking warm up for the long, versatile and extraordinary career he had ahead, can find the essential truth in any role.
You know that Kingsley nails the character work here because Milton is often hard to like, frustrating in his stubbornness and touching in his willingness to push forward no matter what obstacle he faces.
There’s also Jane Curtin, exceptional playing Milton’s unexpected ally, and stage veteran Harriet Sansom Harris, who gives one of the year’s best performances as a source of compassion for Milton and Jules.
We chat with #Jules director Marc Turtletaub about his approach to the genre-bending dramedy, working with Ben Kingsley, and the challenges of practical effects for its sci-fi elements: https://t.co/htTBUPZ57A pic.twitter.com/mw4pDscCnB
— Screen Rant (@screenrant) August 7, 2023
While it’s unwise to expect grandeur from a film this small, the moments that lean into the sci-fi genre are well done. It was a clever decision to make the alien so mysterious, as we’re never quite sure until the end how it feels about Milton (or anything else).
“Jules” has a needless, overcooked subplot involving the events occurring outside of Milton’s town that give the film some scope. The gentleness of the tone and an unhurried pace could also make audiences fidgety if they’re expecting something broader.
Like the aforementioned “Robot and Frank,” Turtletaub’s film uses the sci-fi-angle to explore issues facing the elderly and provides perspective on those who are old, isolated and seen as odd in their community.
“Jules” won the Audience Award for Best US Narrative Feature at the 2023 Maui Film Festival; I was in that audience and found it quite strange and wonderful. The best way to see this is without any indication of what’s coming. That’s the best way to see this or any movie.
The concluding scenes couldn’t be better and there are moments throughout that I look forward to revisiting.
It’s a nice and fitting surprise that “Jules” and the similarly low budget sci-fi drama “Aporia” (with Judy Greer) are opening in limited release on the same weekend; these are smart, special films that utilize the wide-ranging possibilities of their genres.
Both films, which are worth seeing in a theater, demonstrate how science fiction isn’t just about the fantastic unknown coming down to Earth but how earthlings struggle daily with everything that makes us human.
(Editor’s Note: Actress Jane Curtin’s name was misspelled in the original version of this story.)