Much of the resisted maturation journey playing out for the title character in Josh Mond’s “James White” feels petulant and half-hearted, much like the character himself. We learn that effort is by design because he is a character that needs fixing. The only way James White can mature is through bottoming out and finding emotion in places other than himself. “James White” is a difficult and unflinching look at both terminal illness and wasting one’s life on selfish excesses.
A favorite of this year’s Sundance Film Festival as the winner of the “Best of Next” audience award, “James White” is drawing audience praise throughout festival circuit stops in Toronto, New Zealand, London, Vancouver, and the AFI Fest. Locally and most recently, it was a U.S. Indies selection at October’s 51st Chicago International Film Festival. The film sits with a superb 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and opens to limited art-house theaters nationwide on November 13.
For a distant comparison, picture the Robert Downey, Jr. vehicle “The Judge” from last year, but without the nostalgic romance and the central court case. Comprise it solely with the petulant relationship between a parent and child and pull no punches with painfully realistic scenes like this one from “The Judge” and strip away the glamour and dignity. Force a man to accept and aid in watching a family member succumb to a terrible illness and you will come close to “James White.”
Played by the little-known Christopher Abbott of HBO’s “Girls” and the indie film “Martha Marcy May Marlene” from 2011, James White is the selfish screw-up son of his less-than-proud family of New York white privilege. The film opens with a nearly five-minute tight close-up take of him getting hammered at a nightclub. Slowly, the music shifts away from the raving club mix and the camera backs away to follow him out of the club. Instead of continuing the bender, James keeps the earbuds in and takes a cab to a residential address. He exits, takes an elevator, and arrives to what we find to be his family and friends sitting Shiva for his newly deceased father. At once, with the first conversation and introduction of his disapproving mother Gale White (former “Sex and the City” star Cynthia Nixon), we immediately now know what’s weighing on Jame’s mind.
As the film continues marking the calendar months that follow, we begin to see the roots of James’s self-destructive mess of a lifestyle. He has no career direction, blows job interviews with family friends (Ron Livingston), and is embroiled in alcohol, drugs, questionable friendships, and dead-end relationships. When James learns that Gale’s cancer has spread and become worse, his selfish tailspin continues with a frivolous vacation to clear his head and get laid. We see a man that is not capable of caring for anyone but himself. Eventually, Gale’s care falls on him and James has to muster the strength to do the right thing.
This all may sound terrifically depressing and difficult because it is. It is meant to be hard and there is a respect to be found in that. “James White” is not a film for the faint of heart. Without spoiling the denouement, all is redeemed when first-time feature director Josh Mond writes a scene for the ages. For a powerful moment, the bleakness fades away and the film ascends to an unexpected place. It cleans up a narrative that, until that point, made every effort to help us push the main character away in disgust.
At a point where neither James nor Gale feel they can continue on (and likely at a point where we, the audience feel the same way), James carries her to the bathroom one night in a scene that trumps every single second of that aforementioned comparison from “The Judge.” To calm his mother, James opens up to her with a creative optimism of an imagined future far away from their current predicament. Billie Holiday music breaks the background silence, his character shifts, and the scene blooms to shatter us to pieces.
“James White” is a dark and imperfect film about a dark and imperfect character, but it has moments and impressions that cannot be denied. The build-up makes the laborious path to get there all worthwhile. There is a bit of an open ending that matches real life. Formulaic movies like to tidily clean up all of a character’s problems in two hours. That’s not going to happen here. The best we can root for is a realistic and necessary shift to a better direction for James. Nevertheless, we recognize the effort and become justified in praising the visceral acting from Abbott and Nixon. Sometimes the films that are the hardest to watch are the ones we should watch the most.
Lesson #1: The debilitating course of cancer— Most Hollywood films do their best to keep the unhealthy effects of terminal cancer off-screen or lightly addressed. Films like that create these dying future angels that we baptize with our sympathy. They will almost assuredly go out in a noble and dignified way. “James White” doesn’t do that. It is raw and rough with realism and evasive dignity. Anyone who has watched some go through this in real life knows that this process isn’t pretty. Not everyone that dies from cancer is an angel graciously welcoming heaven. Gale is not one of those angels. She has fears, flaws, regrets, and unsettled affairs.
Lesson #2: Steering your own self-destruction— James is quick to find trigger and excuses for his vices and behavior. The truth is he is the author of his own hardship. His choices are what steer his own self-destruction. No one is pushing James, only himself, and he’s not dealing with that well. He has the power to make it worse or do something about it.
Lesson #3: Learning to care about someone other than yourself— The main goal of James’s character arc is shedding his own selfishness and entitlement to care for someone other than himself. Initially, not a thread of him is well-meaning. James thinks so often with only his own convenience and comfort in mind, even in the midst of his father’s passing and his mother’s right around the corner. Sometimes, getting to the point of maturity of caring for someone other than yourself takes a tragic experience to make you value life and relationships. That scenario stands right in front of James’s face. It’s his move to act and react.