Published Nov 26, 2015On paper, Josh Mond's directorial debut, James White, doesn't seem like much. Like many New York-based independent films, it's a dialogue-heavy character piece featuring actors known primarily for playing secondary roles on projects that featured bigger celebrities. It premiered at Sundance to some acclaim and preoccupies itself with the psychology of youthful adolescent existential woe exacerbated by familial mortal concerns. In short, it seems like the sort of fare that might pop up — and likely be ignored — as a Netflix recommendation.
Even the story is seemingly quite mundane: the titular James White (Christopher Abbott) teeters on the verge of a nervous breakdown while coping with the death of his absent father and his mother's (Cynthia Nixon) terminal diagnosis. He tries to escape via hedonistic impulses, drinking and drugging with his best friend Nick (Scott Mescudi), but is constantly embroiled in drama and conflict.
But this isn't your average indie fare. In fact, it's a cinematically literate, stylistically daring work, anchored by raw, dedicated performances. It's conscious of its urban environment and how the audience interprets visuals and pacing. Josh Mond understands traditional viewer coping habits and expectations, and manipulates them to heighten the tension and emotional vocabulary of his work. This is why James White is turning so many heads.
Initially, this isn't clear. When James White starts, James is moping around with his buddy, neglecting family responsibility by showing up for his father's wake late. The handheld camerawork, with its perpetual close-ups and the tight edits that never give us breathing room almost seem inadvertently grating. It just seems like a cheaply made art film with crappy cinematography and editing that compensates for such. But as the story progresses, a few things happen to clue us in that this style isn't an accident.
As James and Nick shoot the shit at a bar, a background conversation between two other patrons acts as annoying white noise. James, not having a great deal of patience or delicacy in approaching conflict, offers "Shut up, you loud cunt," instigating a predictable defense mechanism from said the person at whom it was directed. We never get a clear shot of her, just as the eventual fight that breaks out stems from people we hadn't even noticed in the bar; in James' world, and within urban spaces such as New York City, there's often no escape from people and bullshit.
If one is sensitive to it, going through the sort of identity crisis that James is — unsure of his future career ambitions, his family and his actual desires — it's nearly impossible to ignore the bullshit. It's like a constant reinforcement of the troubles that exist in his head, and we, as the audience, are never allowed to escape his immediate proximity. Abbott is in screen in virtually every shot of this film, and the only time we're allowed to escape from close-ups of him is when he goes to Mexico for reprieve and meets the more liberated Jayne (Makenzie Leigh).
This claustrophobia, and Mond's refusal to give us the break that our protagonist desperately wants, forces us to share his anxiety. Once James is forced to look after his sick mother (played expertly and devastatingly by Nixon despite being written as a mere victim of illness), there are no breaks from the onslaught of responsibilities and negative stimulation, which is why the eventual outbursts and some of the indulgent behaviour from James — as portrayed by a fully immersed Abbott turning in a career-defining performance — are as logical as they are aggravating and infuriating.
James White isn't an easy movie to watch — we aren't placated with exposition and there are no musical montages that allow us to retreat into ourselves or escape from the action — but it is a fascinating and challenging work that shows just how much a bit of smarts and talent can do with few resources. This is a bold debut from a talented director that is sure to put him and his lead actor on the map. It will be very interesting to see what they do next, respectively.
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