Always focused on the main subject, James White is a visceral and real story following our damaged lead character during the toughest time of his life. Unflinchingly, first time writer and director Josh Mond makes you feel every second of James’ emotional and sometimes self destructive journey, pulling one of the best performances I’ve seen all year from Christopher Abbott. It is one of those must see works that will fly under everyone’s radars.
Coming from the producing team that wowed critics in 2011 with Martha Marcy May Marlene, Josh Mond’s ability to rock the audience to its very core within this eighty five minute film is absolutely astounding. The feeling of being perched almost on James White’s shoulder for the duration of the film gives an incredible intimacy that, aside from the Hungarian film Son of Saul, is relatively new to me and beautifully effective in getting in the head of our troubled central character. The accolades this film has received from Sundance, AFI Fest, and other critic circles are more than warranted.
The story revolves around James, a New York slacker in his early twenties, who is dealing with the recent passing of his father. He is also acting as caretaker to his mother (Cynthia Nixon) who is in the advanced stages of cancer. Being the only child, the looming possibility of losing everyone in his life seems to weigh heavily on James as he hits clubs at night, excessively doing drugs, drinking and partying until the morning.
James only companionship comes from his best friend Nick, played by Scott Mescudi, also known as rapper Kid Cudi, who also provides the soundtrack for the film. James and Nick appear to have a tumultuous relationship as there may have been some sort of a falling out between the two before our story begins. There is some tension between the two and some definite history as Nick is also close with James’ mother. Even still, Nick tries to ground James a bit from flying of the rails; causing some deeper rifts in their friendship.
Unable to direct his grief about his situation and with no one he feels he can turn to, James is quick to anger and lashing out at strangers and those left around him. Contrastingly, the scenes he shares with his mother are soft spoken and a heartbreakingly beautiful portrait of the one thing that keeps him tethered to something good. His other relationships, including a new girlfriend he meets in Mexico, seem to have a reserved nature in comparison. With his mother’s passing becoming an increasing inevitability, will James be strong enough to pull out of his nosedive?
The most compelling piece of this film besides Abbott’s performance is how much of a role the camera plays as a character itself. When James is going through some of his toughest moments, whether it’s an explosive bar fight or emotionally kicking everyone out of the shiva his mother is throwing for his dead estranged father, the shot is tight on his shoulders and face, giving us direct access to every subtle nuance. Contrastingly, when James goes on his trip to Mexico the camera relaxes with him and pulls away for its own little emotional vacation. It’s not until his world comes crashing down that we’re brought back to the suffocating closeness.
Make no mistake, this film will absolutely annihilate you emotionally. Pond’s ability to deal with mortality is so deep that it goes beyond anything I’ve ever seen before. Cynthia Nixon’s supporting performance is a soul shaking one and it’s surprising with all of the accolades James White is receiving in the indie circuit her name doesn’t come up more. Her performance is a big piece of why this is one of the most important films this year. In Hollywood, these real human stories are incredibly rare.
In all the films I saw this year at Vancouver International Film Festival, James White was among the ones that were impossible to shake. The feeling of being dropped without a parachute into a vividly real life will play your heartstrings in the most visceral way possible and for those who have gone through something similar, it may be a heavy shot of catharsis. I loved James White so very much and give it a five out of five.