Bookmark and follow our exclusive coverage of Toronto International Film Festival 2015.
James White is an unflinching portrait of the would-be artist as a flailing and spoiled 20-something, gripping from its sensory overload of a first scene all the way to its emotional final act.
The film opens with its eponymous character (Christopher Abbott) lurching through an after hours club, fiddling with his headphones in an effort to block out the pounding music before launching himself back into the outside world where he shows up late to his father’s shiva, just in time to find his mother, Gail (Cynthia Nixon), awkwardly comforting her ex-husband’s widow.
James is alternately protective and useless at the event, forgetting his mother’s medication for her cancer recovery, and causing a scene in which he means to defend her, but ultimately ends up making the entire situation about him. As the gathering breaks up early, his mother regards her son, who is staying on her couch, with amiable disappointment, clearly not for the first time. Then he goes out with his best friend Nick (Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi, who also wrote the film’s excellent score) and promptly starts a bar fight.
It’s admirably efficient storytelling: Within a few scenes, we’ve established everything that will carry the film through its 85 emotionally fraught minutes. James is a mess, almost as altruistic as he is selfish, and enabled by the privilege of his position in life and the people who love him too much to stop enabling him. And, despite the lip service he pays to wanting to write and make something of himself, James seems content to drift in this manner, staying at the Mexican resort where Nick works and seduces a sweet cypher of a girl (Makenzie Leigh) until Gail calls him and tells him that her cancer has returned and she needs his help.
In lesser hands, this could easily have devolved into a sentimental redemption story. But rookie writer and director Josh Mond (who has cultivated a lot of goodwill thanks to his work as a producer on solid indie fare like Martha Marcy May Marlene) is too skilled and careful to resort to such a cop out, and this is where the film truly begins to shine. With no life-altering epiphanies or easy outs forthcoming, Gail’s final days – and James’s inability to really live up to the Herculean task of being her primary caregiver – are written with beautifully brutal realism and played with such intimacy and openness by Abbott and Nixon that it almost feels voyeuristic to watch them at all.
Abbott, best known as Charlie on Girls, is a revelation as James, showing a range only hinted at in his previous work, and unselfconsciously delving into a role so potentially unlikeable that it could make Hannah Horvath look like a universally beloved sweetheart. What’s just as impressive, though, is that there’s never a moment at which his performances outclasses his supporting cast. With Nick, Mescudi takes a character whose only development occurs in direct response to his friend James, and makes him feel like a three dimensional human being. And Nixon delivers the performance of her already quite solid career, giving Gail a kind of dignity that we really see offered to dying characters: the right to be a full-fledged and flawed human being.
The writing, direction, and acting are so real that they leave James White with a unique problem. Watching them on screen is just as frustrating and occasionally infuriating as dealing with a self-absorbed and unfocused man like James would be in real life. As a result, a viewer’s enjoyment of the film is likely to be directly related to their tolerance for flailing and spoiled 20-somethings. For those who can bear it, though, the film is more than worth the irritation. James White might fall short of expectations, but James White at least manages to deliver on its promise.