The title character in “James White” is a good guy with some pretty bad habits. James (Christopher Abbott) is a young, self-centered but-sometimes-gentle, New Yorker who combats the terror of grown-up responsibility with copious amounts of booze and misadventures like picking fights in bars.
The film follows James in the months that follow his estranged father’s death, and lead up to the end of his mother Gail’s (Cynthia Nixon) battle with cancer, two devastating events that are difficult even for a well adjusted person, but for James –who already has his own issues– it’s a building storm. In the opening scene of the movie, he stumbles out of a pulsating nightclub early in the morning and drunkenly makes his way to his mother, Gail’s (Cynthia Nixon) apartment, who’s hosting a shiva for his estranged father. It’s pretty safe to say that showing up late and plastered to your father’s memorial is a good sign you might need to make some changes in your life.
Considering how inconsiderate he proves to be early on in the movie, it’s easy to hate James, but Abbott’s performance makes you aware that James’s bad behavior stems from fear; deep down he has a warm heart. Throughout the film James appears to be a barely-contained storm as he first grapples with his father’s death, and then with the possibility of his mother’s death. We also see how he struggles to care for her while he can barely take care of himself. The film artfully explores the flip side of single parenting; while many films have delved into the challenges of raising a child alone, few have depicted the difficulties of caring for a dying parent alone. Multiple scenes mirror each other, highlighting the role-reversal that has occurred between mother and son, early on in the film Gail calms James down with a breathing exercise, and late in the film as Gail’s health begins to deteriorate James uses the same breathing exercise to calm her down.
Cynthia Nixon gives an outstanding performance as Gail, weaving in and out of lucidity as her condition worsens. Nixon gives one of the year’s most heart-rending screen performances and the scenes showing the bond between Gail and her son make James more relatable to the audience. A heartbreaking scene between James and his mother in the bathroom simultaneously showcases this role-reversal and the depth of love between the two of them. For all his partying, forgetfulness, and irresponsibility James truly is doing the best he can to care for Gail while being obviously overwhelmed by the task. It’s hard not to be sympathetic to someone who fights as hard as he does to help his delirious mom navigate through the labyrinthine health care system, and who comforts her when she’s sweating and puking through the night.
“James White” is the debut feature of writer-director Josh Mond, Josh Mond introduced his film at the AFI Film Festival this past week saying “I hope you feel something.” Post-screening Mond told the audience, “I wanted to make a film that punches you in the face, and then in the gut.” James White does exactly that, evoking a fit of rage and grief that will knock the wind out of you. It also has a sense of immediacy, and an unexpected commitment to narrative—much of that is due to the cinematography, shot hand-held, which keeps a laser-tight lens on James for much of the film. We see those shots often quickly going in and out of focus. The focus seems to be an extension of him at times— following James as he takes off on a tropical vacation (“When I come back, I will be ready for life,” he insists), has a frenzied romantic fling with a teenager, and tries to parlay a few sloppy hand-written short stories into a regular gig writing for a magazine edited by one of his dad’s old business associates. The shots depicting things James either can’t or won’t deal with are often blurred.
Christopher Abbott absolutely shines in this role; even in scenes with a camera angled tightly to his face and with minimal lines he manages to capture the full range of James’ emotions. James is volatile and messy, but also fiercely protective and loving towards his mother, all of which is superbly captured by Abbott’s performance.
A lot happens in “James White,” all related to the hero’s inadequate understanding of what it means to be an adult, but if he’s going to at least try at least he does so as it relates to his mother.
Written & Directed By: Josh Mond
Starring: Christopher Abbott, Cynthia Nixon & Scott Mescudi
James White opens in theaters November 13th.