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Review: James White

November 27, 2015

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

James White PosterAt the beginning of James White, the title character (Christopher Abbot) is in a throbbing New York nightclub.  We see his face in extreme closeups, lit by the purplish glow of the lights, the music seeping out of his white earbuds differing from what we hear blaring around him on the loud speakers.

A girl tries to hit on him, but he pushes her away.  We watch as he tips back a drink and opens the door, flooding the scene with daylight.  Then he drunkenly stumbles into a cab, and heads to an apartment, where the reception is happening for his father’s funeral.  Right from this gripping and revealing start, James White slowly but surely crushes us with a whole range of emotions.

James spends his days drinking, sleeping around, and getting into fights, living off insurance money that is mentioned but never overly explained.  This is a man who is already lost and drifting through life, but he finds some purpose through caring for his mother (Cynthia Nixon), who is being slowly consumed by cancer, and is increasingly reliant on him to get her medication and provide physical support.  When he escapes on a trip to Mexico with his supportive best friend Nick (Scott Mescudi), an act of pure desperation that leads him to hook up with a fellow New Yorker (Makenzie Leigh), even this vacation is cut short when he gets the call to go back home.

Directed by Josh Mond, from his own perceptive and highly personal script, James White is a piercing and bracingly honest character study, that hurts precisely because of how believable it all feels.  The cinematography adds another layer of gritty realism to the material, including handheld camerawork and extreme closeups that create a sense of claustrophobia.  This is a piece of work that hits hard, tearing our hearts wide open in ways that are almost painful to watch, a feeling that is made all the more real by Christopher Abbot and Cynthia Nixon, who breathe heartbreaking life into their characters.

Christopher Abbot carries the film with a raw and gripping performance that explodes with tremendous force, channelling the spirit of Marlon Brando.  The actor captures the pain of a broken man trying desperately to hold his life together, at least while his mother is still alive so that she doesn’t have to see the mess her son has become.  This is deeply resonant work, and Cynthia Nixon is equally engrossing and devastating to watch, appearing increasingly frail and skeletal as her body slips closer to death and her mind starts to drift away.  This is her best performance to date.

The film’s pivotal moment, a shocking and ultimately gut wrenching sequence between them in the bathroom, offers a masterclass in naturalistic acting, unfolding with intense and unblinking honesty through an unbroken single take that frames their faces in the middle of the screen.  It’s one of the most compelling and profoundly affective moments that James White has to offer, a scene that captures something so haunting and emotionally honest about the bond between this mother and son, that it’s absolutely crushing to watch and impossible to shake afterwards.

James is an angry young man, often drunk and prone to public outbursts, guilty of the typical millennial narcism, and yet we can’t take our eyes off him.  There are moments when he tries hard to push everyone away, and we can tell that he views things with a sense of hopelessness that he is desperately trying to conceal.  But James is a broken man who also gains our sympathy, even when he doesn’t necessarily deserve it, because there is something genuine and admirable about his fierce dedication to caring for his mother, especially in the moments when they are alone and his emotional guard comes down.

We want him to be okay, but really don’t know for sure, and James White is so powerful because it doesn’t try to redeem him or save him from this existence, instead allowing us to just watch and observe as he struggles towards the end of another chapter in his life.  This is an absolutely devastating drama, and I mean that in the best possible way.

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