Written and Directed by Josh Mond / Starring Christopher Abbott, Cynthia Nixon, Scott Mescudi
James: What am I supposed to do? What am I supposed to do?
Oftentimes a performance is deemed “brave” because an actor or actress has stepped out of their comfort zone to portray an unsavoury character, or do a nude scene showing their hoohah, or (my personal favourite) play a gay character when, in reality, they’re really, really straight. Christopher Abbott, in the title role as JAMES WHITE, gives the bravest performance I have experienced in a long time, and I mean that sincerely.
We first meet James in a bar, messed up, sweaty, somewhat oblivious to his surroundings. We quickly learn he is grieving the loss of his estranged father while being there for his beloved mother, Gail, (a masterful performance by Cynthia Nixon, SEX AND THE CITY), who appears to be in remission for cancer. He decides to go to Mexico with his best friend Nick (Scott Mescudi, who is also the movie’s musical composer) to clean himself up and get back into writing, but instead he finds a supportive girlfriend (Makenzie Leigh) while there and quickly reverts to his self-destructive, hedonistic lifestyle. There is a hilarious scene where, stoned on acid, he and Nick are transfixed by the colourful flip-flops sold in a shoe store. When he receives a phone call that Gail’s stage four cancer has returned with a vengeance, James quickly returns home to New York City and we watch, transfixed, as he tries to straighten out his life for real.
Somewhat autobiographical, first time movie writer/director Josh Mund’s theatricality and cinematic vision is staggering to watch. Choosing to show James’ journey, focusing on his face and almost entirely filmed in extreme close-up, is a brilliant and compelling concept. Whereas essentially, JAMES WHITE is a coming-of-age tale, though the main character is not an angst ridden teenager but an adult in his late twenties who doesn’t really know (or care) how to get his life on track, I was emotionally invested. As someone with a personal history of not just partaking but bingeing on the many excesses that life has to offer, both good and bad, I was stunned by the authenticity and fearlessness of Abbott’s performance. How this young actor, who is probably best known for his short stint as a boyfriend to one of the girls in HBO’s Girls, was able to portray a range of emotions, from tenderness to cockiness, to fear, pent-up rage, compassion, confusion, vulnerability and pain with a camera consistently six inches away from his face is revelatory. I wept uncontrollably in one scene where James and Gail lie side by side on her bed. She is racked in pain but smiling with pure unabashed joy as James talks about how their lives will turn around for the better. It is raw; it is honest; it is heartbreaking; and it is a scene worthy of Oscar nominations for these two amazing actors.
I was genuinely ill prepared for the power of JAMES WHITE. It is films like this that define indie movie making at its most brilliant.