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James White. 2015. Directed & Written by Josh Mond.
Starring Christopher Abbott, Cynthia Nixon, Scott Mescudi, Ron Livingston, Makenzie Leigh, David Call, David Cale, Benjamin Brass, Lori Burch, Scott Cohen, Adriana DeGirolami, Jeanette Dilone, David Harris, Rosemary Howard, & Sue Jean Kim. BorderLine Films/Relic Pictures.
Rated R. 85 minutes.
Producer Josh Mond has been behind a few really excellent films such as Martha Marcy May Marlene, Afterschool, and others, as well as the upcoming Christine (not a Carpenter remake). His first feature film, James White, is a little flawed, but overall an honest, raw look at the life of a New York City Millenial stuck in a brutal situation between trying to reign in his own childish behaviour and taking care of his very sick mother, all after the death of his father. In a day and age where many young people are starting to deal with the death of parents, just as every generation has before them, this is certainly a film with huge impact.
Often the battle against cancer is portrayed in an almost romanticized way. Many movies will show the devoted individuals caring for their sick loved ones as unabashed caregivers, noble, nearly saint-like. Instead of the cliched, emotionally manipulative picture many mainstream Hollywood movies paint, James White is the portrait of a young man, imperfect and stubborn, whose life is upended. He becomes caretaker to his mother while also trying to discern his own place in the world. Along the way we watch his destructive self unfolding in the emotional massacre of his life. There are portions of this film that are genuinely sweet and beautiful. Still, the ugly side of love in a time of disease is on display to make sure the honest truth never slips from our memory.
The center of this film, above its gritty real life feel, are the two major performances from Cynthia Nixon and Christopher Abbott. I mean, honestly, this doesn’t have to be your cup of tea. Although, if it doesn’t move you there may be parts of your insides made of concrete. Immediately we’re drawn into the reality of this story because of cinematographer Mátyás Erdély (Son of Saul, Miss Bala), his natural feeling lens hooks the eye. We’re able to drop into the perspective of the main character James because the camera follows closely behind him, near him, hovering over his shoulders constantly. So once we’re put in that position, Abbott’s talent further pierces us. He is enigmatic, and at the same time upfront. He’s enigmatic because there are things he’s not saying, leaving below the surface, as the drinking problem and everything else, his bravado, masks what’s truly going on. Simultaneously, the camera lets him be upfront because we see his darkest moments. And under all that machismo, there’s a sensitive part which eventually breaks through those barriers. Abbott is able to give us all the aspects of James that makes him interesting. They’re not always easy to watch, nor are they enjoyable. Sometimes you want to smack him and scream into his entitled face. But always, always he is able to command your attention with a brave, truthful performance.
Added to Abbott is the fantastic(ally underrated) Nixon. Her performance is even more exceptional, simply because of the condition she portrays. Her character, Gail, is often difficult, though loving, and many other opposites. Because the disease is ravaging her. It’s the way she shows us the disease which is powerful. It will stop you, freeze your eyes to the screen. One in particular sees her unable to speak, as she says later her brain couldn’t get the words to her mouth, and that moment between her and James is extraordinarily gripping. You’ll almost want to hold your breath.
Ultimately, the two performances together, the relationship between James and his mother, this is what drives the film. I love the look and feel of it all, but these are what makes the whole thing worth it. The threat of cancer and disease is something we all know, and if not yet then someday soon. It touches everybody. To examine the issues – such as how a child might end up having to totally care for a sick parent in an event like James experiences – can really turn heartbreaking. And no doubt, James White both character and film will break your heart to pieces.
A major aspect of why this movie is intense lies in the decision to look at how a young man out of the Millenial Generation is forced to cope with a parent dying. There are so many dumb think-pieces in the media these days, so many ridiculous opinions about the younger generations today, that we’re often forced into believing there are no serious issues at stake for Millenials – and so you know, I just barely fall into this category being born in 1985. With an intensely emotional screenplay by director-writer Mond, this movie allows us a window into a microcosm of that generation. Left with one parent, whose time is numbered due to cancer, James is confronted with trying to make dreams into reality. He’s a struggling young man that wants to be a writer, though circumstances in his life throw him into complete chaos. In an already bad economy, being a writer is a tough life decision; one I know all too well personally, being a writer (I don’t only write reviews). With his father gone, his mother on the way out, he’s almost got a limited amount of time to construct his life. And with so much time spent being there for his mother, he’s had no time to concentrate on getting himself better, he has neglected his best interests. While there’s a noble aspect to that, he is left with a gaping abyss ahead of him, and with no one there to help guide him.
This is a film about cancer, the effects it brings down upon those caring for a sick loved one. It also comes at a time where people in their twenties can relate. Because even as the older generations start to die out (Gail here is not particularly old though) and make way in a sense for the younger ones, there is an element of loss, aside from personal loss, because now we are the ones left to guide the way forward, to steer the future. And like in the case of James, not everyone is ready for the burden.
Absolutely a 4-star experience, from the cinematography and its hyperreal atmosphere, to the directing and the screenplay from Josh Mond. Hopefully Mond will go on to do more directing, apart from his great track record as producer. He is talented, and the personal nature of his writing shines through, even if things are grim, uncertain throughout. James White is difficult but necessary cinema in many ways. Aside from its raw look at something which affects us all, this film really speaks to a passing of the torch, willingly or not, from parents to children. And the torch will pass, no matter if its ugly, or if it passes silently in bed during the night.