AFF Review: ‘Her Name was Jo’ celebrates a sisterhood of scarred survivors

AFF Review: ‘Her Name was Jo’ celebrates a sisterhood of scarred survivors
Courtesy photo

By Cody Mello-Klein |

“Her Name was Jo” was included as part of the Alexandria Film Festival’s Girlpower Showcase, and while the film features a strong female protagonist, writer-director Joe Duca manages to avoid ra-ra saccharine earnestness to instead capture the understated power and strength of a young girl living on the margins.

Young Josephine (Mary Cate Williams) – she prefers Jo – doesn’t have the privilege of a “normal” childhood. An orphan living in a shack along the Shenandoah River with Bill (Jim Constable), her abusive addict of a step-father, Jo spends her days fishing and collecting scrap metal. At night, Jo clings to the sweater her mother gave her when she was just a baby like a life raft, listening to the songs of Johnny Alvarez, who Jo believes to be her “real dad.”

Jo is a survivor. Duca wisely sidesteps showing the audience Bill’s abuse of Jo. He doesn’t need to when he has a capable young actress like Williams, who, through her internal, taciturn performance, shows the lingering effects of Bill’s horrible actions and a life lived in between homes.

It’s no surprise that when Bill dies suddenly, Jo and her best friend Selma (Mary Elisa Duca) don’t hesitate to dump the body in the river, steal Bill’s car and set off for Los Angeles to find Alvarez.

For the majority of its run, “Her Name was Jo” is a road movie. But a road movie is only as good as your travelling companions, and luckily Williams and Duca are a winning duo. Where Williams is stone-faced and tough, Duca is warm and chatty. They’re the perfect foils for one another, and although their performances are at times rough around the edges, they are never less than authentic.

Jo and Selma’s journey across the country is far from laid back. Duca never lets the audience forget that these are two young girls traveling alone and are, despite all their strength, extremely vulnerable. As a result, every encounter with a stranger has a certain amount of tension. A particularly tense episode in an RV is a standout, lulling you into a sense of safety before quickly escalating into hectic violence.

As Jo and Selma travel the open roads and backroads of America on foot, by car or stowed away in a stranger’s trailer, they talk about what makes a good father. Jo rejects the idea of a father altogether.

“Dads are boys and there are two kinds of boys: stupid boys and pigs,” Jo says, her resentment and trauma bubbling to the surface.

While Jo’s “real dad” does not play a significant role in the film, both he and Jo’s mother haunt the edges of the screen.

Jo bears the scars of her stepfather’s addiction, both physically and psychologically. Her angry, at times violent behavior hides a deep well of sadness. It’s clear from the first frame that Bill is not the first stepparent in Jo’s life: As she says during one conversation with Selma, “I’m done being a hand me down.”

Duca’s direction and script handle this sensitive subject matter with a subtle touch, and it’s to his credit that the film never strives for easy solutions to Jo’s trauma. By the end, Jo still bears her scars and she’s still an orphan, but she finds a sense of belonging and family on her own terms.

In an all too brief stretch, Jo and Selma travel with a pregnant woman who bears her own scars. In these moments, Jo, Selma and this woman become a family, a sisterhood of scarred survivors.

“You may not have a home, but you can be a home,” Selma tells Jo.