Director: Josh Mond
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ 1/2
I caught wind of James White in some best-of lists from last year, and just now got to watching it. I tried to watch the film on Sunday but had to cut it short 15 minutes in because of [insert daily adult obligation here] and I started over and got through half of it on Monday night, and then on Tuesday I blocked off my life to finish it. It was well worth the struggle.
In a way James White is a fairy tale about fairy tales. The opening shot is an alcohol-tinged fantasy, with the titular character (played by Christopher Abbott) bobbing his head in some Manhattan club, one ear taking in what the club is playing (some Danny Brown) and the other filled with an earphone filtering the soothing sadness of Ray Charles’ “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” into his brain. The club is dark and sweaty, there is an attractive woman who later goes down on him in the restroom, all while Ray Charles continues to play. James isn’t enjoying himself so he leaves the club, but not before throwing back another drink that is captured gorgeously by cinematographer Matias Erdely, who also worked on the 2016 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winner Son of Saul. For anyone who gets off on beautiful film images, the light from inside the club filtering through White’s glass and the ice inside of it is heart-pounding. The glass is half-empty for James White from the beginning.
Like many millennials or people just in their late-20s/early 30s, James is aimless in the world, and volcanically self-destructive. His father has passed away and his mother is dying of cancer and that is where the film puts us. James will try anything to escape: alcohol, sex, barroom brawls, and also Mexico. What keeps him grounded is his devotion to his mother Gail, the best performance that actress Cynthia Nixon has ever given. The end of the film leaves us wondering whether James will be okay, and it really could go either way.
It feels as if the film is far deeper in its short running time than basically anything that I have watched in 2016.
Christopher Abbott, most famous as Charlie on Lena Dunham’s Girls, is a blazing furnace of fury as James. Watch how quickly he loses his shit during a scuffle in a bar with his best friend Nick (Scott Mescudi) or later on when James slaps the shit out of a high-school kid who needs to learn how to shut up. Many have lauded the long-take scene with his mother in the bathroom near the film’s end, but watching Abbott play James through a disastrous job interview a little earlier is spine-tingling. I look forward to seeing more from Abbott in the future. It’s almost scary how good he is compared to how he was utilized in Girls, as the puppy dog romantic Charlie. Catch Abbott in a later episode of Girls (Season 5, Episode 6: “The Panic in Central Park”) and witness a bit of a revelation.
Although he doesn’t have many lines in the film, Scott Mescudi (rapper Kid Cudi) is damn good as Nick. His performance is far more subdued, just the right amount of quiet sadness at Gail’s situation and also the right amount of anger at failing to keep James afloat as oblivion looms closer. Halfway through the film I forgot that I was watching Kid Cudi, and I never watched How to Make It in America so this is my first time seeing him on-screen. Playing a gay man who isn’t out there gay, the film glosses over this piece of the character a bit to the point that I didn’t realize he was gay until I read about the film’s production after watching it. Mescudi also scored the film, a buzzing trance/house sound that I found enjoyable but really only noticed at both ends of the film.
Finally, there is Cynthia Nixon as James’ mother Gail, who absolutely goes for broke in the film. All of the grunts of pain near the end, adjusting her wig in the bedroom mirror at the beginning of the film… How the hell she didn’t get nominated at the Oscars this year is beyond me. Her conversation with James near the film’s climax, about feeling at the top and at the bottom, was heartfelt, although I felt like it had to provide the film with a message at the end that wasn’t exactly necessary. Nevertheless, Nixon is lovely.
Something that I admired, aside from the acting and the cinematography, was how the film handled nudity. Very often in films, tits and ass and sometimes genitalia are fetishized by the camera, to the point that as the viewer I feel like I’m watching something that I’m not supposed to. Sometimes I enjoy it when films make me uncomfortable and sometimes I’m not into that at all. There is a scene when James goes to Mexico where he is taking a shower with his girlfriend and she is jerking him off. She’s topless and you don’t see any of James but nudity is of course implied. The way the film is crafted, they are both naked and it’s fine. This was immediately striking and maybe that’s because the fetishizing of nudity is a problem in film today. I don’t have a solution to it, I’m just pointing it out. Fantastic.
The glass is half-empty for James White from the beginning.
James White stems from director Josh Mond’s personal experiences with his own mother’s cancer (Mond’s mother passed in 2011). The story is sparse, because this is a character study. The film’s 86 minutes feel like two hours; this is not a bad thing at all. It feels as if the film is far deeper in its short running time than basically anything that I have watched in 2016. Coupled with Erdely’s cinematography, which never lets the viewer below a character’s waist and very often puts you right in someone’s face so you can see every cog in their brain turning, the film consistently feels like something is about to explode or go horribly wrong, even in the most tranquil moments like the aforementioned bathroom scene.
I can certainly relate to James in terms of not knowing what the hell I’m doing or why I’m doing it. Pretty much everyone has had a self-destructive streak, although I can say mine was never as volatile or as blind as James’. I don’t know how he (and by extension Mond) feels when his mother passes, although I was there for the majority of my grandfather’s last months with lung cancer. There were times where I was there more often than my father but I cannot imagine what it felt like to know the end was coming.
As I said before, the film is a fairy tale about fairy tales. Both James and his mother wish that things could be different. There is a world in which his father is alive and his parents are together, and there is a future in which he is married with children in Paris and Gail lives next door in a beautiful one-bedroom. Accepting your reality is a cornerstone of becoming a real adult and the film wonders if there are people who truly can’t do that.