James White is an important, emotionally-centric piece of cinema that has just enough lightness of touch to deal with it’s poignantly tragic subject matter. Having screened at Sundance in 2015, it went on to win over crowds on this side of the Atlantic when it featured at the BFI London Film Festival in October that year, and is now being released on DVD by Soda Pictures in the UK. From the team behind Martha Marcy May Marlene and Simon Killer, this directing debut of the enigmatic director Josh Mond “explores loss and the deep relationship between a mother and son,” and is loosely based on Josh’s own history of losing his mother to cancer. It stars a sublime Cynthia Nixon alongside a ferocious turn from Christopher Abbott as the title protagonist, and co-stars Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi, in a supporting turn which clearly shows that his talents belong to the screen.
The film launches us straight into the unwavering and unapologetic energy of James’ life, opening with him in familiar surroundings (he’s at a nightclub with friends), only James is never really ‘with’ anyone. Lost in his own thoughts, there is this constant dark energy ebbing and flowing around his very being. Focusing only on James, the camera literally a close up for these first ten minutes of the film, it becomes obvious to us that we are exploring a real character piece here, and from an intimate viewpoint.
From this noisy, pulsating nightclub scene, we are thrown along with James into his mothers home. She is holding a wake for his father and we begin to understand James and his intense family situation as it unrolls within the scene; unhappily, he is acting as carer for his ill mother whilst simultaneously grieving his father’s death. Casting Nixon as James’ mother is a real coup. As the illness takes hold of her, Nixon allows herself to become increasingly physically vulnerable but never lets go of her ferious and underlying strength of mind and brash, New Yorker character. James is by her side increasingly as she is struck by the illness, Mond preferring to let the relationship, that unspoken word, play out between mother and son and leaving it to the actors to create this bond between them; the real love behind the frustration and grief.
James is uncompromising in how he wants to live his life, his choices are made firmly and decisively, but Mond shows just how confidently we can be the saboteurs of our own circumstance. In one stand-out scene, he attends a job interview at the New Yorker, interviewed by an old family friend (a sympathetic Ron Livingston.) Forcing himself to confront the world that he wants, and feels that he is ready for, he is able to see how far he actually needs to go before he can achieve it. With a lengthy shot of his reaction to the inevitable negative feedback, we can actually see the realisation dawning on his face, only to be pulled back beneath the mask that he has to live behind in order to face his reality. A completely insecure, yet dynamic character, James has at last realised that from even before his fathers death, his mental state has been slowly deteriorating and his support network have been fading back into the recesses of his old life.
The genius of the film lies in Abbott’s ability to portray a range of emotion and his true despondency with his particular circumstances, with each piece of dialogue secondary to how he chooses to react. James lives inside his head; that’s where his potential lies, and that’s where we stay also as we follow him through the day to day exhaustive pain of having to live with the fact that his mother’s life is fading away. A really important piece of cinema to set up Director Mond’s glorious career in indie film, I cannot wait to see what he has in store for us next.