In the five months found within James White, our title character is at the most difficult chapter of his life thus far. Grieving the loss of his father and attempting to assist his ailing mother, the drama authentically depicts the brutality of the process. After producing the gripping Sundance dramas Martha Marcy May Marlene and Simon Killer, Josh Mond diverts in some ways with his directorial debut. Providing yet another intimate character study of a fractured individual, James White also has a perhaps unexpected enveloping warmth.
Commanding every scene of the film — and in most sequences, nearly all of the frame in extreme close-up — is Christopher Abbott, who worked with Mond on Marthy Marcy, but is best known from his stint on Girls and was briefly seen recently in A Most Violent Year. We’re introduced to him in a close-up as he drinks, profusely sweats, and attempts to dance in a nightclub, all while disconnected from the blaring music, wearing his own set of earbuds. After getting pleasured by a stranger in the establishment he exits to broad daylight, an initial signal of his perpetually disordered state. He ventures to his mother’s apartment, where he’s been helping her cope with cancer (or in her words, “freeloading”) the last few years, encountering a group of family friends who are trying to help with the grieving process, even to an ill effect.
His childhood friend played by Scott Mescudi (aka Kid Cudi) returns, seemingly the only one able to truly peel back the insurmountable layers of his pain. Mond and his Borderline Films crew of Sean Durkin and Antonio Campos (who produce here) are no strangers to portraying cold, disturbed individuals, but Abbott’s James White is their most fully-realized character yet. His violent outbursts at both strangers and friends are juxtaposed with an unforeseen, compounding tenderness towards caring for his mother (Cynthia Nixon, in an achingly traumatic performance).
While lesser, perhaps more commercial films might shy away from the actual process of decay and loss, Mond displays no fear in vividly walking us through the bleak events in James White’s journey. Some of his moments of unabashed anger may come across as overwrought and pre-calculated, but Mond’s raw, unflinching approach goes to great lengths to provide a tangible reason for our lead’s internal struggle.
Abbott also shows formidable range in not only the darkness, but giving us some spare humor as he clearly envisions himself being in a better state than he’s actually in. A trip to Mexico lands him a girlfriend, but not the career advancement he amusingly lays out before he goes. When a promising job opportunity does arrive (thanks to a family friend, played by Ron Livingston), a disheveled James White botches the chance. As an audience, we can see the outcome a mile away, but one can’t help but root for White, a notable accomplishment considering the dark edges surrounding the character.
Visually, Mond and cinematography Mátyás Erdély (Miss Bala) don’t employ the precise control found in the films of Campos and Durkin, as they are more interested in letting Abbott guide their movement — a perceptive decision, considering the authority of his performance. Capturing a large emotional spectrum in a small scale, James White may be an uncomfortable, brutal sit for many, though when dealing with this material, Mond’s uncompromising vision does a necessary service. One will never wish to go through precisely what White does, but losing one’s parents is inevitable, and the film is a searingly authentic portrait of the process.
James White premiered at Sundance Film Festival and opens on November 13th.