Director/writer Josh Mond’s feature debut, James White, stands out in this year’s crop of indie dramas because of two incredibly powerful performances and some brilliant camerawork. Released by the young indie film distributor Film Arcade (they hit the scene in 2012), the film has garnered awards on the festival circuit and received coveted nominations at both the Gotham Independent Film Awards and the Independent Spirit Awards. Mond, who is also a producer of such edgy and respected movies like Simon Killer (2012) and Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), deserves due respect for making such a powerful debut out of an intimate story. However, it is the performances by Christopher Abbott and Cynthia Nixon that make this film, and the camerawork of Mátyás Erdély that seals the deal.
James White is a 20-something man unmoored and out of touch with the world around him in need of finding his way back to solid ground. In a brilliant establishing shot, we meet him dancing in a club, listening to music on headphones. The camera remains tight on his face. The harsh, tacky hip-hop of Danny Brown’s “Smokin & Drinkin” reverberates off the tinny walls of the venue, merging with Ray Charles’ smooth version of “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying.” Neither overtake the other, they just mix into a mélange of sonic unease, representative of the state of the conflicted James who will find himself having to grow up fast over the course of a winter in New York.
As the film’s titular character, Abbott is outstanding as a young man who allegedly has a talent for writing but can’t find work. Over the course of a few months, he must endure the funeral of a father he hardly knew and a mother dying from cancer while straining to break out of a state of arrested development crippled by these life-changing circumstances, not to mention his alcoholism. It’s a sad situation that some might find frustrating to follow, as James seems rather pathetically inert about his exigency. This means the viewer will have to search for small moments of grace to forgive James’ bleak dark side and sympathize with him.
Abbot rises to the occasion by channeling this stasis with slight, tense ticks, as Erdély’s camera hovers close to his face during much of the proceedings. His eyes and the tilts of his neck speak for themselves. Even though Abbot’s mouth utters statements like, “It’s cool,” he conveys a sense of suffering inside. Outside the focus of the camera, Abbot plays with the small details. His voice cracks as he kicks out interlopers into his mother’s home during a “shiva” for his father (neither his mom or father are Jewish nor did James even know his father had remarried). James is trying to act strong though he only projects a man who can’t find a chance to grow up as he tangles with a sudden change.
Erdély knows a little something about perspective through cinematography. He is also the DP who has received immense praise for his work on Son of Saul, the film that presents Auschwitz through the eyes of a prisoner tasked to clean up at the Nazi death camp. I have not seen Son of Saul yet, but if the tight focus work in James White is a clue, Erdély’s camerawork is key to that film’s success (it’s been nominated for a Golden Globe and won the Grand Prix at Cannes). The tight, shallow-focused camera is always on James. Besides making it obvious who the film’s about, this also serves to keep supporting characters, like his best pal (Scott Mescudi) and girlfriend (Makenzie Leigh), at a distance, creating an imaginary barrier reflective of James’ ego. His difficulty to truly connect with anyone is not only in what he says or how he acts but also realized visually in this incredibly suffocating, constricted field of view. This tight focus also does something extremely subtle. James is a hulking bruiser of a man. Short-fused, he always seems ready to throw a punch — and sometimes does — to settle a problem with others. However, the enveloping lens, shrinks James without perspective context, heightening his vulnerability.
Mond, who also wrote the film’s script, shows great understanding in how difficult James’ situation is, and he doesn’t cheapen it with a pat resolution, which would be a disservice to the film’s titular character. Thus, the film’s climax is not what one would expect. It arrives during a sometimes difficult to watch extended scene of James caring for his mother. This brings us to Nixon’s performance in a stellar supporting role. The confusion and helplessness of a mother who still has work to do but is slipping away from existence is as frustrating a character as the man-child James. Nixon plays the wiped out woman lost from the inside with grace but also an uncomfortable rawness of a body that’s lost its will to hold a persona that still hangs on to its unconditional love for her messed up son. It’s a powerful supporting performance in that it might be lost in its role to characterize James. It’s also stark to watch Nixon — of the light fare of “Sex and the City” — play, a sweaty, incontinent shriveled person in hospice care. Her role is both physical and metaphorical. A loss James needs to go through to grow up, and Nixon plays the pain with disquieting preciseness and a loss of her own sense of self.
With the mother’s final days, comes a shift in perspective. The camera is held back to allow James’ mother into the frame, as he learns to care for someone beyond himself. His concern eclipses his issues. There’s a calmness and alertness to his tending of his mother, as she starts losing her place in his life. The ending of the film is a bit tricky. It’s not in the traditional place you might expect. It is here, in this scene of reckoning of love and death. The hope for something more for this man is revealed in how he cares for his mother in her final days. This is where you can see that there is a goodness in James. He’s so concerned for and devoted to his mother. It’s not just in his attentiveness. There is a sense that he has come to understand someone beyond himself, something he lacks with everyone else. Thus, hope arrives in this revealing, raw encounter with death, a key component to transformation.
James White runs 85 minutes and is rated R. It opened in our South Florida area on Friday, Dec. 11 at Cinema Paradiso in Hollywood, located in Broward County. Further south, the film is playing exclusively at the Regal South Beach Cinemas. For dates in other U.S. cities, visit this link. All images courtesy of the film’s distributor, Film Arcade, who provided a screener link for the purpose of this review.