Mark Reviews Movies

James White


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Josh Mond

Cast: Christopher Abbott, Cynthia Nixon, Scott Mescudi, Makenzie Leigh, Ron Livingston

MPAA Rating: R (for drug use, some sexuality/nudity, and language)

Running Time: 1:25

Release Date: 11/13/15 (limited); 12/4/15 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 3, 2015

Wisely, James White leaves the unresolved troubles and feelings of its eponymous character unresolved. He deals with the sudden death of the father he barely knew by drowning his emotions in a haze of clubbing, drinking, smoking, and having sex with any woman who will take him back to her place. He approaches the recurrence of his beloved mother's cancer in nearly the same way, although, in this case, he is faced head on with some of the worst life has to offer. The young man is not a bad person. The worst of life can bring out the bad or the good in a person. Sometimes it produces both, and almost all of the time, it highlights the good and the bad so that we see it as the best and the worst a person can be.

Writer/director Josh Mond's debut feature is a film of such extremes. It doesn't judge James White (Christopher Abbott), but it doesn't let him off easy, either. At certain points, we might feel that James deserves the scolding he receives from certain characters. They tell him that he needs to relax, that he needs to get his life in order, and that he's nothing more than just a spoiled kid.

All of this is true to one extent or another. James is constantly looking for a fight, and while sometimes it's justified, often that anger is aimed at the wrong people for the wrong reason. He has been living in his mother's apartment and sleeping on a couch there for months. It started so that he could care for her while she was sick, but he's still there, even after her illness has gone into remission. Now, he doesn't even get her medication from the pharmacy until she reminds him multiple times. His mother Gail (Cynthia Nixon) appreciates what he has done for her, but she also observes that he has become a freeloader. To counter the argument, James says he's going to go on vacation to Mexico, because he needs some time for himself. Looking for a place of his own to live, a job, and everything else that goes with becoming a responsible adult will have to wait until he returns. There's the spoiled part.

He has had a rough go of it, though, especially as of late. There was his mother's illness and all that brought with it. There was his father's death, the reminder of whatever feelings came with the man's absence, and the discovery that the father had another family about which he apparently cared more. The writer/director offers these details as reasons for why James is the way he is. The reasons and the results exist together, feeding off each other until not even James himself can see a discernible difference between them.

Mond doesn't make excuses for the character. He's smart enough to know that his character makes enough excuses for himself. James doesn't need an enabler.

The film follows James, often in claustrophobic close-ups that, thanks to Abbott's subtle but precisely expressive performance, have the effect of presenting us with the duality of this character. The pain is apparent, but so too is a sort of disinterested laziness. The opening shots watch his face as he dances, a drink in his hand, at a club—far more interested in the soulful song playing in his earphones than the club's soundtrack and unable to stay awake during the cab ride to his mother's home. There, his recently deceased father's family and friends are sitting shiva, and James has an outburst when someone decides to play the video of the father's second marraige.

The Mexico trip comes about because his best friend since childhood Nick (Scott Mescudi) works at a resort. James meets Jayne (Makenzie Leigh), and the two begin a whirlwind romance before Gail calls him back home. Her cancer has returned and spread.

The story proceeds to divide its time between James' half-hearted attempts to put his life together and his wholehearted efforts to care for his ailing mother. Both threads are presented with an unflinching level of intimacy and honesty.

In his personal life apart from his mother, James continues his relationship with Jayne, who sticks with him through this difficult time, but it's clear that he operates too much on his own whims and desires for anything to really come of this romance (The fact that she's still in high school says something about his choice, too, since she's not exactly in a position for anything substantial). After he discovers she's going out with friends instead of coming back to his apartment, he goes out to a bar on his own, where the routine of his outings predictably unfolds. There's an almost childish kind of pettiness to his behavior here.

He has a promising job interview with Ben (Ron Livingston), a family friend, and the night before, he insists on partying with Jayne and Nick, despite their protests. When the interview becomes a chance for Ben to impart some necessary advice, we can see the disappointment becoming entitled frustration.

It's the worst James has to offer, and it's juxtaposed with his best self, as he cares for Gail as her condition worsens. The most grueling of these scenes is a long night during which Gail contracts a fever. Neither Abbott nor Nixon's performance hold back on the details—the weakness, the pain, the embarrassment, the utter helplessness. The way Abbott plays the scene with a calm, rational sense of necessity feels painfully true, too.

In some respects, James learns along the way, but in others, he doesn't. The conclusion of James White, which begins the process of the character's routine of denying reality and arrives at a slightly different result, suggests something resembling progress, but the young man still has a ways to go. That also has the ring of truth to it.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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