MIFF 2015 Film Review: James White (2015)

In James White, director and screenwriter Josh Mond has created an understated character study of a man struggling to cope with his father’s death and his mother’s battle with cancer. Intimate and unfussy, Mond lends the subject matter a quiet gravity, and the two lead performances often share a moving chemistry. However, the film never really becomes as emotionally resonant as it sets out to be. Too often its quieter moments feel disconnected or detached from the more viscerally honest scenes, preventing the film from being as consistently stirring as it could have been.

In New York, James White (Christopher Abbott) lacks a stable job and direction in his life, instead choosing to spend his time indulging in the more sensuous pleasures afforded by New York – drinking, partying, promiscuity. His estranged father’s passing brings up unresolved emotional issues, but his attempt to avoid confronting these feelings by going to Mexico are cut short by news of the return of his mother’s (Cynthia Nixon) cancer. Having been raised singlehandedly by his mother, he rushes back to her bedside to help her recover, but as her condition deteriorates he finds himself increasingly unable to cope. Over the next few months James is forced to confront his emotional immaturity, and face the likelihood of becoming completely independent without the support he had taken for granted.

Much of the film is trained on close-ups of Abbott’s face in ordinary moments, walking around or waking up. The way in which he avoids looking directly into the camera parallels the way in which James avoids dealing with reality, choosing instead to retreat into himself. In these more mundane scenes, Abbott subtly reveals flickers of self-doubt, apathy and fear. However, these glints do not build up in any sustained way, so that instead these extended close-ups appear as if they are trying to coax emotion through patience and persistence as opposed to capturing it as it organically unfolds. This is unfortunate, as it detracts from the film’s more emotionally moving moments, especially those shared between James and his mother. Nixon plays her role with an open, vulnerable warmth and a complete lack of vanity, and Abbott is at his most honest when carrying out tasks like putting his mother to bed or helping her to the bathroom. Together, they provide an often touching portrait of the bond between mother and son, one that one wishes could have been complemented with an equally compelling and nuanced insight into the title character’s inner life.

James White screened at the 2015 Melbourne International Film Festival.

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