Directed by Josh Mond
James White is a character study. Titular character James White (Christopher Abbott), is a bit of a mess, but his mother’s battle with cancer forces him to become an adult. The film begins and ends with tight close ups of James’ face, stressed and almost emotional. In both shots he looks like he’s about to lose something or already has, and in each shot we’re not given much hope to think he’s found any peace whatsoever. But he’s still a changed man.
James feels too royal of a name to call this character. Looking like a knock off Jon Snow (thanks to my roommate Jimmy for pointing that out), Abbott’s character is burning the candle at both ends. We meet him in a nightclub, drunk and delirious. The camera remains tight on his face, as it will throughout most of the film, and we’re forced to really take in the sight of this sweaty, disoriented man. Then he emerges from the dark club into the bright daylight, and we wonder just how long he’s been there.
James takes a cab to his mother’s house to attend a Shiva for his recently deceased father. James, we get the idea, isn’t the most reliable. He doesn’t want to be there, whether because he can’t handle it or just doesn’t care enough to attend. His best friend, Nick (Scott Mescudi) is there, as well as a man (Ron Livingston) who offers to set James up with a job interview.
James is jobless, almost homeless, and he pretends that his help with his mother has more to do with his kindness than with him needing a couch to crash on every night. James’ mother, Gail (Cynthia Nixon), has battled cancer, though the impression is that the worst is behind them. She and James are close, and she knows him well enough to recognize his flaws and call him on his bullshit.
James is in a cycle of misery and desperate attempts to escape that misery. He seems to alternate between an alcohol or drug induced haze and a trembling, sweaty sobriety. You can almost see and feel his skin crawling when he’s not inebriated or stuck at home with his mother.
The first act of the film is set in New York and shows James’ lackluster attempts to deal with his own suffering. He’s going nowhere, but we recognize the opportunities for him to climb out of this hole. He has a supporting mother, with a couch for him to sleep on, a supportive friend Nick and a possible forthcoming job interview. Still, when Gail confronts her son about getting his shit together, he pleads for some time away. He wants to stay with his friend in Mexico so he can clear his mind, meditate, exercise, write and eat healthy.
Suddenly he’s in Mexico, hitting on a girl, Jayne (Makenzie Leigh), doing acid with friends and wandering somewhat aimlessly. The first assumption is that James is avoiding any attempts to clean himself up and clear his head, but his relationship with Jayne is the most positive development in his life, at least at first. She is nurturing with him and flies back to New York when Gail calls James, telling him to come home because her cancer has spread.
And just like that, we’re back in New York, a city presented as oppressively claustrophobic. The occasional wide shot at the beaches in Mexico vanish, replaced by the familiar shallow focus close up of the first act. Jayne remains supportive of James, but she is also reluctant to put up with his selfish, self-pitying attitude.
When Gail’s condition worsens, James steps up. He fights for her at the hospital, arranging to get her situated in a more permanent bed. Then he has to search for her when, once returned home, she gets lost out on the streets of New York. Even as this is going on, James remains a mess. He goes out partying all night, the night before his interview at a magazine company. He goes out with Nick and Jayne who neither seem to protest or enable this behavior. If anything, James is the one running the show. Jayne suggests maybe they don’t go out the night before his interview, but when he insists, they go out and stay out for most of the night.
Things get worse after the party when James gets into a fight with Nick and incidentally elbows Jayne in the face. Contrary to what you’d expect, there is no big confrontation after this. Nick calms his friend down, and suddenly it’s the next morning, with bright light flooding the room, making what was before a somewhat inviting, albeit stressful, hotel room into a sterile examination-like room. The morning light might as well be interrogation lights intended to wake James up to reality.
His friends help him get ready for the interview which goes poorly. The family friend suggests that James needs to clean himself up. He’s incredibly understanding nonetheless, letting James know that he understands how hard it is to lose a parent. Either way, James returns home feeling like he lost something.
The emotional climax of the film involves James taking care of his mother, who now requires hospice as the end nears, over the course of a single night. The night is covered in almost painful detail, with James calling the hospice hotline to ask what to do in regards to her fever, then giving her water every time she wakes, then taking her to the bathroom and sitting there, telling her about an imagined future in order to comfort her.
It’s both heartbreaking and somewhat unexpected. You might expect the climax of the film to involve James’ past misbehavior, or the anticipated job interview or even his friendship with Nick and relationship with Jayne. Instead it just focuses on this one night, this immediate role he has to fill. Everything else subsides in the face of such grief and such obstacles.
Soon Gail passes away. We’re there for her final breaths, and this film is oddly riveting in its presentation of these final moments. James pulls himself out of the house and walks down the street to light a cigarette. He looks like he’s just been through war, and in an emotional way he has. The film cuts to black, and that’s that.
James White doesn’t offer so much hope for its main character, but it does show that he, and maybe anyone, can step up to the plate when called upon. James seems like such a problem at first, and yet he almost seamlessly pivots into the role of caregiver when needed. Like other characters in this film, James seems at first to be a familiar character type, but director Josh Mond imbues him with an odd kind of grace. His anger and possible addictions don’t vanish, but we see how much more he’s capable of. At first he’s a character that struggles to feel anything but sadness (his mother tells him, “it’s ok to be sad sometimes”), and at the end he’s the emotional support for his mother, telling her a story about the future and the life she helped create through James and his theoretical family. He’s telling her that he’ll be ok, and she doesn’t have to worry anymore.
Throughout the film, there are many sudden cuts to a moment later in a scene or to another scene entirely. In one moment, early in the film, James sits in a cab, piss drunk, and we suddenly cut to him waking up from the same camera angle, at the end of the ride. In another moment, James sits at a bar, drinking alone. Suddenly we cut to him in bed with a woman we don’t know.
Elsewhere we cut from James asking his mother for time to clear his head to him in the beaches of Mexico. There is very little time given to the transition from one moment to the next. Instead we’re just in the next moment.
That technique might make you think we’re constantly jumping through time, but the pacing of the movie both speeds up and slows down. It’s a story told over the course of about five months, which we know from quiet title cards that appear throughout the movie, telling us which month it is. These title cards are subtle, and it’s easy to forget about each of them until you see the next.
In one moment, we’re immersed in James’ headspace as he stumbles through a club or through Mexico on acid or through the long night before his job interview. Rather than holding on a single shot for an entire scene, a technique that you might expect given we’re stuck in this moment, the camera cuts often but to more moments within that setting. That might mean a series of jump cuts as we follow James down a New York street. These jump cuts, because of the lack of change in scenery, might be easy to forget. It creates a feeling that we’ve remained in the same place, in the same shot, for quite some time, and yet it slices up the scene, creating a disjointed effect. Everything feels chopped up and uneven, like you’re sitting on a seat with a single thumbtack that you constantly try to avoid.
The point seems to be that nothing is okay. James isn’t okay, he doesn’t feel okay, and his behavior isn’t okay. This isn’t something you just live through and wait for the world to pat you on the back for your survival. James has to survive and evolve as a person. Ron Livingston’s character makes this clear. People are there for him when he’s ready, but it’s up to him to get to that point.
When the film ends, he’s not yet there, but he’s one step closer. It might just be that this one step is the first one he’s taken in a long time.
Up Next: War for the Planet of the Apes (2017), Boyhood (2014), A River Runs Through It (1992)