James White

James White (Christopher Abbott) is an adrift, unemployed twentysomething in New York City. He recently lost the father he barely knew, and is now in charge of caring for his mother Gail (Cynthia Nixon) as she battles cancer. Torn between being a full-time caregiver and living his own life, James indulges in reckless, self-destructive behavior, eventually...read more

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Reviewed by Daniel Gelb
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James White (Christopher Abbott) is an adrift, unemployed twentysomething in New York City. He recently lost the father he barely knew, and is now in charge of caring for his mother Gail (Cynthia Nixon) as she battles cancer. Torn between being a full-time caregiver and living his own life, James indulges in reckless, self-destructive behavior, eventually pushing himself towards a breaking point. Writer/director Josh Mond’s impressive debut feature James White chronicles the eponymous character’s life, and emerges as an incisive emotional roller coaster.

After a long night of partying, James arrives at his mother’s apartment for the Shiva honoring his late father. There, he snaps and launches into an outburst targeted at his father’s second family, and then declares to Gail (whose health has recently improved) that he needs a respite from life in New York. Along with his best friend Nick (Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi), James heads south to Mexico for an extended vacation. He soon meets Jayne (Makenzie Leigh), a fellow New Yorker on vacation with her family, and the two begin an LSD-fueled courtship. But just as James is beginning to relax and escape the confines of his own headspace, he gets a call from Gail, whose condition has worsened significantly. James, Jayne, and Nick catch the next flight home to New York, which sets up the film’s magnetic, heartwrenching final act.

Abbott’s performance is wonderfully raw; he deftly treads the line between stability and emotional combustion when faced with his mother’s failing health. After jumping ship from the stagnant Girls, he takes another step forward in his career with this intense performance. In addition, Nixon is fantastic in a physically demanding role. It’s difficult to imagine an audience member who will be unable to connect with the two characters’ rapport in the face of overwhelming adversity.

Mond and cinematographer Mátyás Erdély rely heavily on ultra-tight close-ups, with the snug camerawork evoking James’ feelings of suffocation as he deals with forces beyond his control; only when he retreats to Mexico does the camera’s stranglehold relent. Meanwhile, the skilled cast work confidently in unison with Mond’s free-flowing script. They manage to speak in a tenor that feels improvised and natural -- James’ strife is believable because of how fluidly Abbott depicts it.

Mond is also careful not to paint James as a consistently empathetic character. He’s selfishly entitled at times, as well as frequently careless with the feelings of his loved ones. As Gail’s health deteriorates, so does James’ independence. He wants to be there for his mother -- there is no questioning his love for her -- but Gail is demanding a lot from her only child. James spends countless sleepless nights on the couch of her apartment, consumed with grief and guilt, because he knows that if he doesn’t care for her, no one else will.

At the same time, the moments of tenderness between the damaged son and dying mother are executed with a palpable authenticity. Family dramas and coming-of-age tales tend to lean on tropes and melodrama to force viewers to reach for the Kleenex, but James White is an affecting picture because it sidesteps these tendencies. Each scene is a snapshot of flawed human beings coping with loss, responsibility, and mortality. The picture is gut-wrenching in its study of stress, illness, and love, and while there have been plenty of dramas over the years about family members battling cancer, few have challenged the audience to deconstruct that familiar narrative the way that James White does.

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