Director Josh Mond’s new film, simply titled James White, casts a harsh light on the ugly, exasperating fight against cancer. It also morphs our expectations about its lead character, played brilliantly by Christopher Abbott, through several stages of empathy, anger and self destruction.
Essentially what begins as another seemingly obligatory drama dealing with the ennui of white upper class New York social strata, James White ultimately ends up as searing portrayal of one man’s inner compass lost in the wilderness of personal grief.
This aforementioned ennui seeps off the screen at the opening as James (Abbott) dances, drinks and parties his way through a loud, neon-lit club before stumbling outside (to our surprise) into broad daylight. Unsure whether this is morning light or afternoon haze, it barely makes a bit of difference as Mond’s camera sticks close to Abbott’s shoulder, wheezing, breathing heavy and keeping the rest of the city out of focus.
Things get even heavier as James returns home, where he interrupts the wake for his recently deceased father. Infuriated that everyone in the apartment is glued to a wedding video of his father’s second marriage — and with his new wife and their young daughter wallowing in grief on his mother’s couch — James proceeds to kick everyone out, despite the repeated pleas by said mother (Cynthia Nixon) that they stay.
It’s here that James White begins to straddle the path of “a-hole” character study, which is a burgeoning subsection of indie film (i.e. anything by filmmaker Rick Alverson or the ‘mumblecore’ movement of Andrew Bujalski, Joe Swanberg, et al). Enabled by best friend Nick (Scott Mescudi), James’ day is far from over as the two old friends head back out into the New York bars which ends, accordingly, with the two picking a fight.
In hopes of keeping his interior demons further at bay, James embarks on a trip to Mexico with Nick, who holds a job there at a resort. There he meets 18 year old Jayne (Makenzie Leigh) and carries on a relationship with her (and other women) when back in New York.
I go into detail with all this because James White carefully establishes a certain paradigm in the first half that almost dares the audience to dislike James. Myopic to the point of abstraction, Mond’s refusal to pull back the camera from Abbott’s aggressive persona and reveal what’s causing this young man so much inner turmoil only adds to the frustration.
It’s only in the second half that the film unexpectedly pivots and creates tremendous further upheaval for James. It goes to some very tough places, and anyone who’s had the displeasure of watching a loved one waste away before their eyes will be extremely moved. It’s here that Mond’s unflinching cinematography and Abbott’s breathless characterization intensifies.
Already gaining a ton of buzz for her performance as James’ mother, Gail, Cynthia Nixon (Sex and the City, Too Big To Fail) gives a career defining performance. Loving one moment and battered by pain the next, she inhabits a role that could have easily been soap-opera level, yet she maintains an honest, intimate rendering.
Bottom line, escapism entertainment James White is not. It cuts close to the bone and never shies away from the brutality of the sickness it presents. In that regard, its easy to see why James (or anyone) would lose their composure with day to day normality and seek the numbing effects of alcohol and non committal relationships. Yet, for all the time spent on James’ bullheaded abstinence in facing reality, the relationship that eventually develops between he and mother Gail proves the compass isn’t lost for good.
James White opens in the Dallas-Fort Worth area on Friday, December 4 at the Angelika Film Center Dallas.