Running time: 85 mins.
Release Date: USA, November 13, 2015
“James White”, the first feature directing effort from “Martha Marcy May Marlene” producer Josh Mond, arrives with an authenticity, and wealth of personal observation, that many first attempts share. Hands down the best film, and one of the last that I saw, at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival, it’s a powerhouse debut for long-time producer Mond. Sometimes you can judge the potency of a film by how much it sticks with you, and this one leaves a deep gouge.
Poignant where it could have been maudlin, honest where it could have lapsed into caricature, this is a film that will deservedly land on many critics top-10 lists heading into the Awards season. With a tender performance from “Sex and the City’s” Cynthia Nixon, the film revolves around title character James, played by Christopher Abbott, seen on the HBO drama “Girls.” James, a native New Yorker, struggles to find his place in the world, as his family collapses around him following his father’s death, and continuing with mother Gail’s struggle with cancer. As much as there has been early, deserved, talk of Oscar accolades for Nixon, Abbott is wondrous here, turning in a gut wrenching, nuanced performance that is equally deserving of Oscar buzz.
The film opens with James attending a shiva call that his mother is hosting in memory of his recently deceased father. An awkward, emotional scene, it’s lays the groundwork for what are clearly complicated, co-dependent bonds, that the two main characters share. A film that could be the harsh, New York Cousin, to it’s wacky bridge and tunnel relatives from Zach Braff’s “Garden State”, it has a distinctive, brash New York flavor from start to finish. With a great ear for dialogue, and an obvious personal understanding of the world these characters live in, there is nothing pretentious, or inauthentic, in Mond’s work. These feel like real people, with all of the inherent messiness, and complex vagaries of modern life on their shoulders.
Spiraling downwards emotionally, James decides to take a break from New York, rushing off to a vacation resort in Mexico with best-friend Nick, nicely played by musician Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi. A respite for James, and the film, it’s an opportunity to jettison the hectic, oppressive gray of New York for the open beaches, and frivolity, of life in the Southern Hemisphere. Shot with a brighter palette, and lenses that give the characters room to breathe, it’s a welcome break from the cramped, claustrophobic New York scenes. In Mexico, James meets fellow New Yorker Jayne, played with East Coast hipster cool by the charming, and beautiful, Makenzie Leigh. Eventually the trio returns to New York, and attempts to get on with their lives. James turns to friend Ben for a job, played by the always effective (and seemingly omnipresent) Ron Livingston, as he helps mother Gail deal with her recurrence of cancer.
With material that could have easily devolved into a sentimental, Hallmark movie-of-the-week, tearjerker, this story bucks those conventions. Quirky and heartfelt, its emotions sneak up on you not through any kind of cinematic trickery, or a symphonic, bombastic score, but by giving us moments that feel so authentic, and sincere, that they can’t be denied. Seeing James deal with the various stages of care his ailing mother goes through is a gut punch of emotions, as relatable as it is heartbreaking. Be warned, for anyone who has dealt with a sick parent, or loved one, this film is going to twist you up inside, and not let go.
With impeccable acting, and an impudent, New York attitude under its rumpled surface, “James White” has all of the elements that make for great storytelling. A deeply moving personal account, with fascinating characters, and an attention to the vagaries of life that is undeniable, it’s heartfelt without ever feeling formulaic. This is a film that will sit with you long after it’s over, and is undoubtedly one of the best cinematic efforts of the year.