James White, 2015.
Directed by Josh Mond.
Starring Christopher Abbott, Cynthia Nixon, Scott Mescudi, Makenzie Leigh, and Ron Livingston.
James, a twenty-something New Yorker, struggles to take control of his self-destructive behavior in the face of momentous family challenges.
There is a moment during a brief but terrifying hospital visit where the titular son, James White, increasingly gets more argumentative and confrontational with the various workers in the hospital that are attempting to care for his stage-four cancer-ridden, recently widowed mother, and outside of the scene depicting some of the most powerful and genuine emotion we have seen on the silver screen this decade, it is also one of the most personally affecting scenes I have ever witnessed in a movie.
Without going off om too much of a tangent, I suffer from a disease called Muscular Dystrophy Type-2, with one of the numerous, frustrating side-effects being a weakened immune system which can routinely see me in the hospital to be treated for pneumonia during the winter. Now, I have been healthy for a few years straight now *knock on wood* but during those bouts of extreme sickness, I have seen my own mother speak up to nurses and doctors regarding if anything more can be done to improve the situation. One time I had a newer doctor who was pumping medicine into the IV that was actually making me more sick, which naturally sparked a loud war of words.
The point of all this is that James White may be the most realistic and authentic portrayal depicting the plethora of mixed emotions that can go through a person when relentlessly and passionately caring for a loved one that is not getting better. Pneumonia isn’t as horrific as cancer, but it still leaves everyone close to you stricken with grief, and most importantly, the torturous mental pain of knowing that they can’t do anything but watch. It’s all up to the medicine and varying methods of treatment to save the day.
James White is a particularly special case however, as when he is not caring for his mother, he is rampaging down a self-destructive path of alcohol, sex, violence, and drugs. For the first 30 minutes or so when his mother is in a period of remission, James comes across as rather unlikable; he’s the epitome of a man-child, without a job or direction in life. While on a vacation to Mexico however, once he gets a phone call from his mother that the cancer has returned, he immediately drops everything and returns home (complete with a new girlfriend) to help her battle the life-threatening illness. Furthermore, it’s at this moment we realize that James is indeed a good person, just one who simply has no idea how to cope with the admittedly brutal situation he’s struggling to face without resorting to a hedonistic lifestyle.
Perhaps what’s most depressing about James White isn’t that it is a movie where viewers literally observe a good woman slowly die, but that it takes such a severe tragedy to kick-start this man into getting his act back together. I’m not even sure he actually does, but I’ll let you discover the ambiguous ending for yourself and draw your own conclusions on this deeply intimate character study. It’s a strong testament to the writing that someone so unlikable from the beginning can slowly transition into a sympathetic being whom we deeply want to find peace and happiness.
There are also so many fascinating directorial choices throughout the film, such as many facial close-up shots and lengthy takes to emphasize the agonizing trauma these characters are going through, a brilliant decision to keep many supporting characters off-screen as much as possible to capitalize on showcasing how all-consuming caring for James’ sick mother is, and a bold move to have the film chronicle five months while only running at a briskly lean 85 minutes.
One would assume that there would be no time to develop this story at all, but tight focus on the central character and supremely compelling performances from the duo Christopher Abbott and Cynthia Nixon keep the proceedings entirely riveting, even in the face of harrowing material. It’s also worth mentioning that Kid Cudi was brought aboard to compose a somewhat haunting original soundtrack, and act in the film as James’ supportive friend; it’s another choice that paid off
The only real problem with James White is that the movie doesn’t have much of a purpose outside of being an outlet for director Josh Mond to spill out some semi-autobiographical material from his soul. Regardless, the first-time writer and director successfully wrings out earnest drama with a devastating series of events. James White will break you, leaving you sobbing your eyes out.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder – An aficionado of film, wrestling, and gaming. Follow me on Twitter or friend me on Facebook