Christopher Abbott excels as the capricious titular character in this first feature from indie-producer-turned-director Josh Mond, about a young, wayward man’s struggle to cope with his mother’s deteriorating health. Although baring the hallmark elements of other coming-of-age dramas, James White refuses to indulge in the expected narrative framework, offering little in the way of optimism or redemption.
Cynthia Nixon plays James’s mother, Gail, a stage-four cancer patient established right away as one of those most undeserving of victims; affable and generous, she is first seen hosting a shiva for James’s father, from whom she was divorced long ago, comforting his second wife and their child. James turns up to said gathering fresh from a night of drunken and drugged up partying, and is of a far less beneficent spirit, caring little for appearances and unafraid to cause unsociable disturbances. Whilst Gail’s illness is pivotal, the narrative is entirely James’s affair, consisting mostly of a pattern of hedonistic nights filled with drugs, booze, sex and brawls.
James is a man in crisis, unable to get his own life under control let alone cope with the task of being his mother’s primary caregiver; the precision and routine demanded from her care schedule clashes with his erratic and directionless lifestyle, and he falls apart mentally when faced with the severity of her condition, childlike in his fear at the vulnerability of the parent he has relied on. Abbott gives a superb performance, striking the perfect notes in his embrace of the selfish, tough and brooding exterior of his character, whilst allowing the naivety and helplessness of the tortured soul beneath to shine through, giving a sympathetic element to an otherwise unlikable man. Abbott’s performance is complemented by cinematographer Matyas Erdely, whose use of handheld cameras and claustrophobic close-ups perfectly evokes the necessary angst and dejection of his primary subject.
James White is very much about stripping things back, with little in the way of superfluousness in either the technical elements or its characterisations, allowing for a raw and arresting emotional core. The connection between mother and son is palpable, their relationship is genuinely moving, with special praise due to Nixon for her totally undressed and artless performance as Gail. James White may be a journey that ultimately takes us nowhere, but from start to finish it is convincing, compelling and potent – definitely essential viewing.
James White does not yet have a UK release date yet. It is part of the Love competition at the 59th London Film Festival.
Watch the trailer for James White here:
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