Title: James White
Director: Josh Mond
Major Players: Christopher Abbot, Cynthia Nixon
Out Of Five: Four
At Saturday’s Independent Spirit Awards, Josh Mond’s James White was up for three awards – Best First Feature, Male Lead and Supporting Female. Not a bad haul for a brand new director, who also wrote the film’s screenplay and, until now, was best known as the producer of indie hit, Martha Marcie May Marlene. And coming away from the ceremony empty handed didn’t lessen the impact of this powerful family drama that made an impression on last year’s festival circuit.
After winning the Audience Award at Sundance 2015, it popped up at a number of festivals, including London, but strangely never managed to get UK distribution, hence its arrival on DVD today. The story is straightforward enough. James White (Christopher Abbot) is a twenty-something New Yorker, sleeping on his Mum Gail’s (Cynthia Nixon) sofa. He doesn’t have a job and his main interest is “having a good time” with his friends. Until he’s dealt twin hammer blows in quick succession: his father’s death and his mother’s rapid decline from cancer.
We’ve all told somebody to “grow up” at some time and it’s a phrase that really applies to James. For him, it means facing up to reality and dealing with it instead of hitting the bottle, the weed and other people. He’s not a bad guy, just immature and spoilt after being brought up by his teacher Mum after his dad left when he was a youngster. So what we see early on is him getting wrecked in a club. The camera concentrates on his face, with everybody else out of focus and the music alternating between the pounding beat of the club and the contrasting jazz classics on his headphones. It looks like we’re in for yet another film about an unsympathetic, feckless young man, especially when he takes a cab home – and arrives late for his father’s wake. The club was his way of coping with his grief.
But there’s more to come. A brief holiday meant to help him recover is cut short when his mother’s cancer flares up again and the bulk of the story takes place in the period between his father’s death and his mother’s impending demise. Something of an emotional wastleland that gives him little or no time to recover from one blow before having to cope with another. Yet, as his mother goes downhill, he grows in stature, but it’s a slow process. There’s still plenty of the old James, hitting out at anybody because he’s just angry with the world: the drink: casual sex: drugs. But the other side starts to emerge, his caring side, looking after his increasingly frail mother, having to deal with medical staff at the hospital and the care nurse who visits daily.
It’s here that both Abbot and Nixon come into their own. As James, Abbot isn’t unlikeable, but initially you feel like giving him a good shake and it’s a feeling that doesn’t completely go away. Nixon’s role is about as far away from Sex And The City as you get, as she becomes thinner and more fragile and her mental capacity wavers. Together, their scenes have the freshness of improvisation and shine with honesty to the point of rawness. Towards the end of her life, they are both fraying at the edges and who wouldn’t? But it’s magnetic acting, full of truth, compassion, understanding and utterly devoid of sentiment.
While they dominate the film, there’s a third, smaller performance worth watching out for. Ben (Ron Livingstone) is a friend of James’ dad who offers the young man a possible job. He turns up for his interview ill-prepared, smelling of drink and in no fit state to start work – yet he still expects to get the job. It’s a pivotal moment, because Ben has two choices: employ him or tell him the truth. He goes for the second, risking a punch in the face, but it’s actually the first time James has listened to the truth about himself and those words will ring in his ears for some time. Livingstone’s acting is quiet, unshowy and thoughtful: he’s the best friend James has ever had, even though the young man doesn’t realise it at the time.
The fact that the film is an acting showcase for just some of its characters is a strength and a weakness, because all the others are left underdeveloped. The girlfriend that he acquires on holiday disappears after their return to New York and, while the inference is that she’s left because of his behaviour, we never really know. And the others drift in and out in much the same way.
While it deserved an outing in UK cinemas, the intimacy and intensity of James White makes it perfectly suited to the small screen, so hopefully it’s straight to DVD release means it will reach a wider audience. It’s earnt it.
James White is released today on DVD and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 3 March.