Directed by: Josh Mond.
Written by: Josh Mond.
Starring: Christopher Abbott (James White), Cynthia Nixon (Gail White), Scott Mescudi (Nick), Ron Livingston (Ben), Makenzie Leigh (Jayne), David Call (Elliot).
The title character of James White is an entitled brat – the type of guy, who doesn’t have a job, doesn’t do anything but still feels like he really needs a vacation. The type of guy who still dates high school girls while being in his early 20s, or who shows up to a job interview after a heavy night of drinking – still in the same clothes he went out in. The type of guy who gets into a fight over the smallest of slights. It’s safe to say, that James White is far from the most admirable character you will see in a movie in 2015. Yet, unlike a movie like The Comedy from a few years ago – a movie that I found completely insufferable – the movie about the character is not an annoying and smug comedy – but rather a fairly heavy drama – putting this character in the middle of a cancer drama involving his mother, Gail (Cynthia Nixon) – which forces the character to do something, to perhaps grow up a little bit. I don’t know where he’s going to go from the end of the movie – but I want to know.
James is played by Christopher Abbott, in what really is a great performance. There is not an ounce of vanity to his performance – and he never tries to soften the characters edges. He is an asshole at the beginning of the movie, and kind of one at the end of the movie – although he does grow throughout the film. It opens on James at the club dancing – he walks out, and we realize it’s daytime – and gets into a cab. He ends up at his mother’s apartment – who is sitting Shiva for James’ father – despite the fact that they got divorced years ago, and James didn’t even know he gotten remarried. If this isn’t enough, his mother has recently gotten over cancer – but it’s not long before it makes reappearance. He was around to help last time – and wants to be around this time as well – but it’s all too much for him. He heads to Mexico on vacation – and then returns and is immersed in his mother’s treatment, as she spirals downward – not having much hope for recovery this time.
There are scenes in James White that recall a film like Michael Haneke’s Amour (two of the film’s producers, Antonio Campos and Sean Durkin have certainly made films like Simon Killer, Afterschool and Martha Marcy May Marlene that were also inspired by Haneke’s style) as James and his mother have to navigate the bureaucracy of health care, as well as trapping mother and son in their apartment as she gets sicker and sicker. These are alternated with scenes of White partying – heading down a self- destructive spiral where his main goal seems to be to drive everyone else in his life away from him. He has pretty much succeeded – he only has one old friend hanging around (Scott Mescudi), an old friend of his fathers (Ron Livingstone) who offers some possible help, and his new girlfriend – the aforementioned high school girl (Mackenzie Leigh) – who isn’t likely to be sticking around too long. In the best moments of his performance, Abbott reminds one of a young Marlon Brando – going deep into his pain and self-destruction. For her part, Nixon delivers probably the best work I have ever seen her give – a woman who is incredibly smart, but whose body is betraying her – and soon the medication also starts to rob her mind as well, as she slips in and out of coherence.
In many ways, James White probably sounds much like any number of other Sundance films (the film, after all did premiere there this past January) – as they are filled with portraits of man children and people dying of cancer. But James White is no Me and Earl and the Dying Girl – it never tries to provide the audience with any sort of phony uplift or life lessons, as it tries to milk tears from its audience. Instead, it is a portrait of an entitled asshole who is forced to come to face with actual, real life problems – that makes his seem even more made up and silly by comparison. Does James really learn anything throughout the course of the movie? I think so – it’s up to him whether or he does anything with those lessons, or if he continues to do what he has always done – use those problems as an excuse to continue to be an immature jerk.