Christopher Abbott emerges from the shadows, after abandoning his role in HBO’s Girls, with a bristling, raw performance as the title character in James White. This opportunity to venture into a far darker and troubled role has paid dividends as he displays an incredible range.
This is an intimate feature debut from writer director Josh Mond of Borderline Films. On the surface it appears to be quite a conventional drama. A hedonistic, rudderless twenty something trying to juggling the death of his father, his mother’s deteriorating health and his own ambitions. But this is not merely a bleak story about finding oneself, but instead Mond transforms this film with his singular vision. The camera is fixated on Abbott’s performance with a raw and surprising scrutiny. You lean in and are deeply involved in James White’s world, when he breathes, drinks and cries. It’s an unforgiving and immersive experience to say the least.
We see a man flailing through life, fighting against himself while his mother Gail, played with great emotion by Cynthia Nixon, fights against stage four Cancer. We witness her physical decline over a five-month period while James sedates his grief with drink and drugs. Gail grumbles about tardiness, his failure to pick up her medication as promised and his continued unemployment, seemingly trying to cling on to her paternal extinct as she becomes more and more dependent on his presence. James hits back with a typical twenty-something selfishness, hitting the town with his friend Nick, (Kid Cudi) getting into bar brawls, clubbing, casual sex and even fighting each other. Nick is his outlet, but also his facilitator.
After a phone call from Gail revealing that her cancer has worsened, James’ behaviour becomes more dependable. But Abbott’s performance never shy’s away from James’ aggressive resistance to self-discipline, letting his grief pour out onto the screen.
There is a wonderful simplicity to this short but powerful film. Mond has a way of depicting the bond between mother and son and their inner turmoil with intimacy and honesty. There is one scene in particular that takes place after Gail has to be carried to the toilet in the middle of the night that is incredibly moving, as James holds his mother while imagining an ideal world where they both live in Paris and are happy, it’s the stand out moment and show’s the incredible skill of both actors.
This acutely observed drama is a well-paced, emotional powerhouse of a film. Fuelled by stellar performances and thoughtful cinematography that give you an insight into a young man’s chaotic world.
‘James White’ is now available to at We Are Colony for the US or Canada
or alternatively the BFI player for UK viewers.
By Will Harper