James White, 2015
Directed and written by Josh Mond
Starring Christopher Abbott, Cynthia Nixon, Scott Mescudi, Ron Livingston, Makenzie Leigh, David Call
A hedonistic twenty-something must come to terms with personal responsibility in the face of his mother’s battle with serious illness.
Painting a painful and believable account of modern city life, this impressive release from Josh Mond (Martha Marcy May Marlene) sensitively brings about a fire-brand of emotional intensity from page to screen.
The eponymous White (Christopher Abbott) is a directionless young man living from day-to-day in New York city. His sense of reality is troubled by the news of his estranged father’s death. Supported by his ever-loyal best friend Nick (Scott Mescudi), James also has to deal with his mother’s ongoing battle with serious illness. Cynthia Nixon (best known for Sex in the City) is compelling as James’s mother Gail, offering an honest and uncompromising look at the devastating effects of terminal cancer.
James’s psychological wasteland between the death of one parent and the probability of the impending death of the other is the tense stage for this excellently acted piece. Essentially a character study focusing on mother and son, the other characters – most notably White’s new girlfriend Jayne (Mackenzie Leigh) – are disappointingly left undeveloped. With so much riding on the central performances this is perhaps an inevitable consequence, but a little more of the back story of the two best friends and of Jayne’s problems with James’s anger issues would have been welcome.
In any case, the film does what it does best extremely well. Abbott (A Most Violent Year, Martha…, Girls) provides an extraordinary portrayal of a young man in crisis. This is a coming of age story, with James capable of walking down one of two paths; self-destruction or learning from his mistakes and maturing. As this fine film develops and presents its case, the audience is left hanging on right until the end – and even then it is unclear. After all, there no easy answers in this and Mond doesn’t sugarcoat any of it. Just as anyone under severe strain and stress can act unsympathetically, no punches are pulled in James White’s character makeup. At times he is like a caged animal, willing to hit out at anyone and anything standing in his way. Abbott has a raw edge of angst ridden masculinity in this, in pain and not knowing exactly how to alleviate it. All too often his cures are as problematic as the causes…
Mond’s direction, like his script, is unfalteringly stark, with long scenes of dialogue captured hand-held documentary style with explosive results never far away. The real success is leaving us to understand something of White’s problems. He is difficult to like, with his rage filled barking at the moon and binges unappealing to look at but easy to understand and feel sympathy for. Ultimately, the audience is left wondering if he can make it from boy to man, and hoping against hope that he somehow can.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert W Monk is a freelance journalist and film writer.