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A great film expresses its themes and meaning not just once but continuously in every scene or exchange. James White makes its greatness clear by showing you everything in its very first shot: a close-up of James (Christopher Abbott), a young, disheveled Manhattanite partying at a local club, sweating profusely and cradling a cocktail. The shaky, handheld camera is inches from his soft, stubbled face, which seems ready to crack open from exhaustion. His sweat could pass for tears. We follow him as he exits the club into the gray streets of New York. It’s morning, and he’s been partying all night. He gets into a cab and arrives late to his father’s funeral.
In these bold, efficient terms, writer/director Josh Mond informs us that James White is about James White and little else. It’s an emotionally intense, refreshingly internal story that sets a new standard for character-driven drama. This isn’t a film about a character—it’s one of the purest representations of a character American cinema has offered in years.
The details of James’ life fill out the portrait. For the last four years, James has been living with his mother (Cynthia Nixon) in her Upper West Side apartment as she slowly dies of cancer. He runs her errands during the day, and runs from his responsibilities at night. He drinks until he’s loose enough to interact with other people, or to hurt them. Behind the back of his teenage girlfriend (MacKenzie Leigh), he has one-night stands with strange women. He frequently gets into fights alongside his childhood friend Nick (Scott Mescudi), who has the unenviable task of supporting James without enabling him.
Through this specificity, James White achieves the universal. James’ situation is not unlike that of other aging adolescents trying to hold onto the privileges of childhood. When his father dies, his mother reluctantly gives him money and time to go to Mexico to unwind; although James promises to live clean there, he immediately starts taking psychedelic drugs and sleeping with minors.
On the page, it might look like James lives a split existence, but Abbott, in a star-making turn, creates a rich, compelling whole. At once physically imposing and emotionally tender, Abbott exudes a dangerously raw masculinity, an archetype that has been out of fashion since the great performances of Harvey Keitel, Jack Nicholson, and Al Pacino in the 1970s.
That’s high praise, but the film earns the comparison. Especially in contrast to the slick, politically-driven films of this Oscar season, James White keeps its focus on what matters. As James’ mother gets sicker, the ancillary figures in his life fade away, and he’s forced to confront the relationship he’s been seeking to avoid. In the end, it becomes a two-person show, with James condensing all his once-scattered energy into a single purpose, caring for her during her final days.
But James White isn’t just about overcoming grief, nor is it merely a coming-of-age story. There are no overt lessons for the characters to learn here; Mond’s deep focus precludes such perspective. And so the final shot of the film mirrors the first one, tight on James’ face, bracing against the wind, leaving us to question whether he—or any of us—ever really change.
James White opens Friday at Arclight Bethesda.