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Review: James White – “An affecting emotional journey”

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When he left HBO’s dramedy Girls in 2013, allegedly because of creative differences with the hit show’s wunderkind creator (and star) Lena Dunham, 30-year-old actor Christopher Abbott might’ve had a point, despite many considered it a risky move for someone who was practically unknown. Quitting a high profile gig in such a difficult and uncertain industry is something that inevitably winds up drawing attention and gossipy speculations. Yet, the split seems to have been amicable, with Abbott praising Dunham and her work but simply stating he needed a new career challenge and couldn’t see his character’s direction on the show able to provide it.

I don’t follow or care for such matters but after watching his heartbreaking one-man-show turn in bleak but poignant drama James White, an indie sensation at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Best of Next Audience Award, I’m definitely sure about one thing: Abbott is indeed a lead star and his career choices speak of someone artistically focus rather than hungry for fame. In this film he plays the title role of a twenty-something New Yorker who’s stuck in a pretty bad funk of self-destructive hedonism and is faced with taking responsibility for the first time in his life when his mother’s cancer is back and gradually worsening.

If this already sounds too depressing for your taste, maybe you don’t have the stamina for such an introspective character study. However, if you have the patience to let great actors lead you on an affecting emotional journey, James White will be rewarding since writer/director Josh Mond has admittedly crafted a cathartic cinematic experience partly based on his personal struggles. Just like his protagonist, Mond lost his mother to cancer when he was at a delicate time of transition in his young adulthood; having found myself in a similar situation with my father’s sudden and premature passing I can vouch for the filmmaker’s ability to capture the utter feeling of disorientation during such difficult and horrible times.

Christopher Abbott’s bravura is that of making us feel for James although he’s not exactly that likable of a character. The film kicks off with a tight close up on his face as he drinks like there’s no tomorrow in a club with overwhelmingly deafening music and when he finally leaves the place, it’s daybreak already and he gets on a taxi, realizing he’s late for something. The camera is kept close to Abbott for the majority of the film as Mond wishes to convey James’ claustrophobic perception of life and the world around him.

We follow him to an apartment, where his recently deceased father’s wake is being held. We immediately get a sense of the level of psycho-emotional mess he lives in as he claims how that might be the first time he’s meeting his late father’s wife ever since his parents separated. Whatever happened to his broken family, it must’ve not done him much good as James is jobless and directionless, crushing on his mother’s sofa and asking her for money he’s obviously going to waste on partying. Cynthia Nixon is equally wonderful at portraying James’ mom with the perfect balance of someone who’s probably relied too much on her son after divorcing but who also suffers to see him struggle with finding purpose.

James defends his alleged parasitic behaviour, claiming he’s been around to help her out when she was sick but now that she’s well again he’ll get his life back together, though first he needs to go to Mexico with his friend Nick (Scott Mescudi) to recharge. Whilst there he meets Jayne (Makenzie Leigh) and the two get involved but James soon receives a call from his distraught mother announcing her cancer is back and spreading.

Just when things seemed to tick up a bit, James’ world is in shambles again and it’s hard to cope with assisting her mother, as her conditions only get worse and are more challenging to tend to. He tries to still have a life outside this bleak situation yet he continues to drown in his self-destructive behaviour, pushing Nick and Jayne away, spiraling out of control. However, he doesn’t run away from his responsibility and shows unconditional love and relentless compassion for his dying mother. That’s why we root for this character and Abbott does a great job at conveying James’ understated but strong and touching sensibility behind the mess of his insecurity and confusion.

Filmmaker Josh Mond is part of Borderline Films, a production company he formed with friends and fellow NYU-alums Antonio Campos (Afterschool, Simon Killer) and Sean Durkin (Martha, Marcy May, Marlene). They rotate in the main creative roles on each other’s projects and after producing their films it was time for Mond to write and direct his own feature debut, obviously produced by Campos and Durkin. It’s a rather clever way of navigating the film industry’s expensive and uncertain waters and their efforts have turned out into some of the most interesting American indie films of the past few years. It’s a shame that despite screening at the London Film Festival last October, James White only earned a home entertainment distribution here in the UK, yet kudos to Soda Pictures for bringing it across the pond.

4-out-of-5

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