Eventually while watching James White, you’ll decide you simply cannot get a bead on its main character. The sooner you do, the better: Like no movie in recent memory, the feature debut of writer-director Josh Mond is a small marvel of evenhanded empathy. Played by Christopher Abbott, James White has a restless energy, a self-destructive streak, a bratty sense of entitlement, and a fierce devotion to those he loves. So, what does that make him, exactly? A cautionary tale? Utterly insufferable? A misunderstood romantic? James White never quite decides, which isn’t the same as not having strong opinions about its central figure. Mond has nothing but feelings for White, and they’re compellingly complicated.
Loosely based on Mond’s own life, James White spans about five months, but the jaggedness of the telling makes the movie feel like the scenes are simply ripped-out patches in a much larger quilt of a life. There’s a looseness to the film that’s attuned to White’s own twitchy psyche, but Mond constructs his story with care, keeping an eye on its emotional through line. To call James White a coming-of-age tale is simplistic—plus, it creates an expectation that its protagonist actually grows in some sort of quantifiable, conventional way. Maybe White will turn over a new leaf later after the credits roll, but it will take more than an 85-minute film for such a change to occur.
White’s life is in tumult when we first meet him, but we soon get the impression that his life is always fraying—it’s just that, this time, his distant father has died and now that’s become the central focus of his personal whirlwind. White isn’t so much grieving the loss—he hardly knew the man—but, rather, is concerned about his divorced mother Gail (a terrific Cynthia Nixon), who has stage 4 cancer and doesn’t need the additional emotional blow.
But the problems don’t stop there for White, who has used the excuse of caring for his mom as a means to avoid the adult world. In his mid-to-late-20s and an aspiring writer, White hasn’t had a serious job in years, even though a close family friend (Ron Livingston) who works for New York keeps pestering him to come in for an interview. White’s too busy screwing around, hanging out with his buddy Nick (Scott Mescudi) and generally playing hooky from life to worry about much of anything else. What’s worse, because we gather his family has a decent amount of money—they live on New York’s Upper West Side—White doesn’t actually have to pull himself together. When one of the gathered mourners calls White “spoiled” early on, we’re inclined to agree.
But what’s remarkable about the film is how it keeps shifting our perspective on White, never letting us settle too long on any one inkling about him. Similarly, Mond stays a respectful distance from his protagonist, even though cinematographer Mátyás Erdély’s handheld camera often hovers close to White’s face. This emotionally reserved approach isn’t meant to create a dispassionate remove: Quite the contrary, James White seems to invite the audience to be curious and observant and to keep an open mind so that we can judge White not on one incident but through the totality of conflicting scenes.
Around his mother, he can be petulant—an overgrown child—but as her health worsens, he can also be her tireless champion, fighting to get her noticed in an overcrowded emergency room or staying up all night as she fights a potentially deadly high fever. White has been sleeping on her couch for years: Is it because he’s a shiftless bum, or because he knows he’s the only one who can take care of her? We aren’t quite sure—just as we can’t quite reconcile the moments we see outside his mother’s apartment, like when he travels impulsively to Mexico to get drunk, stoned and laid. Mond never puts more weight on one scene—or one version of White—than any other, forcing us to accept the contradictory forces stewing inside this young man. In that way, James White is actually quite humane: This drama trusts us to recognize there’s more than one way to feel about him, just as there’s more than one way to feel about a family member, wife or close friend.
Abbott’s performance has to embody all these different sides of White, and he exudes an insular naturalness. Part of what’s tragic about White’s life is that he doesn’t see it that way: Wandering through his days, angry and impatient, he behaves as if others are the ones with the problem, not him. James White acknowledges what a screw-up he is—the guy is irresponsible, disheveled and quick to throw a punch—but the movie never coddles him or tries to explain away his bad behavior. This is why James White isn’t anything like a conventional coming-of-age movie: Abbott never indulges the possibility that a troubled character can presto-chango turn his life around, and so White is like a man stuck in quicksand, vaguely aware of his circumstance but befuddled about how to escape it. The actor breaks your heart by never asking you to feel bad for White.
The movies have had their share of cancer dramas, but few are as raw as this one. The second half of James White is given over to Gail’s unalterable condition, and Abbott and Nixon hunker down as their characters travel down a road that only has one final destination. Even then, though, Mond refuses to give in to sentimentality or easy takeaways. Because White is such a fascinating paradox, we watch his interactions with his mom intently, wondering if this is somehow the “real” James White, as if such a thing actually exists. What the film makes beautifully clear is that there is no “real” version of any of us—just the one we’re encountering at that particular moment. When James White ends, he is no more illuminated than he was at the start. But in the process of not being sure about who he is, we feel like we come to know him.
Director: Josh Mond
Writer: Josh Mond
Starring: Christopher Abbott, Cynthia Nixon, Scott Mescudi, Makenzie Leigh, Ron Livingston
Release Date: November 13, 2015
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.