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Sleeper of the Week: ‘James White’

Sleeper of the Week: 'James White'

Sleeper of the Week takes a film that only few critics have seen and shines some light on it.

“James White”
Dir: Josh Mond
Criticwire Average: A-

Winner of the Sundance Film Festival’s Next! Audience Award, Josh Mond’s debut feature “James White” focuses on a self-destructive, entitled fuck-up —  played by Christopher Abbott, winner of the Emerging Artist Award at the Chicago International Film Festival — whose life is drinking, clubbing, and picking up random women. When his estranged father’s death and the return of his mother’s cancer comes within months of each other, James is forced to face up to some ugly realities and break out of the medicated, detached shield he has built around him as he tends for his dying mom (played by Cynthia Nixon). Critics have praised Mond for bringing new energy to a simple premise and refusing to dwell in melodrama choosing instead to treat James’ maturation without any of the standard narrative signposts. Christopher Abbott, formerly of “Girls” fame, has also garnered praise for his portrayal, navigating different tones and using facial expressions to create a complex character. “James White” is in limited release this weekend.

More thoughts from the Criticwire Network:

Brian Tallerico, RogerEbert.com

“James White” is a masterful examination of how our behavior and the excuses we make about our lives fall away under certain, life-changing conditions. Most of us have dealt with grief, loss and pain in our lives, and it does something to you. It changes you. Hollywood has long told stories of losers made into winners through tragedy, but “James White” charts that trajectory in its own way, unafraid of the ugly truth of death. Mond shoots almost entirely in close-up, bringing us right into the face of James White, as unable to turn away from his story as he is. It wouldn’t work without the revelatory performance from Abbott, who commits to every emotional beat without making White too much of an asshole to make his redemption worthwhile. He’s matched by fearless work from Nixon, doing the best work of her career. Read more.

Bilge Ebiri, Vulture

James White” looks like a simple film on its surface. As noted, we remain tightly, almost exclusively, focused on Abbott, whose tense lips and watchful eyes often have to carry the drama. (The young “Girls” actor is asked to do a surreal amount of heavy lifting here; it’s a wonderful showcase for his range and talent.) But despite the vérité-influenced stylization, writer-director Mond (whose own struggle with loss likely inspired some of this story) doesn’t seem too interested in realism or grit. The film is regularly punctuated with shots of James waking up, often to find his world slightly different, as if each new day were a different layer in this unending dream. Read more.

Noel Murray, The A.V. Club

It’d be easy to dismiss “James White” sight unseen, because it’s not like American independent cinema needed more stories about arrested adolescent city-dwellers (or terminal illnesses, for that matter). But Mond and Abbot have such a rich understanding of James — a man who uses both his serious and his paltry troubles as an excuse to be as selfish and lazy as he would be on any ordinary day. The character is amusingly ridiculous in the movie’s first half, but as James’ stresses intensify, “James White” becomes more and more gripping, and subtly devastating. Mond has said that this film was inspired by his own mother’s death, which may be why it feels so refreshingly frank and realistic — and even self-critical. This isn’t one of those movies where someone else’s sickness helps a shallow dude become a marginally nicer person. It’s more like an existential horror story, about someone who comes face to face with his own weaknesses when he’s on the bathroom floor with his dying mom — unable to help, and unable to flee. Read more.

Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York

Built out of strongly acted moments of unflinching honesty, Josh Mond’s UWS-set feature debut redeems the indie grief movie — take that as an endorsement and a warning. It doesn’t use the occasion of stage 4 cancer as an opportunity for personal growth (whatever that means), nor is its title character hip to the idea of maturation to begin with. James (“Girls'” Christopher Abbott) spends his nights in clubs, drinking to oblivion and picking up random conquests. These early scenes play like a grown-up “Kids,” until the double shot of his father’s death and his mother succumbing to a disease thought to be in remission send James into a frenetic tailspin. Read more.

Dana Stevens, Slate

In a more conventional, less rigorous telling of this story, James’ coming of age and Gail’s departure from this world would keep pace with one another, and mother and son would overcome their differences in a weepy deathbed reconciliation. Instead, “James White” ends on a note of irresolution so pronounced in its ambiguity that the first screen of credits comes as a genuine surprise: It’s over? Already? But a late scene in which James stays up all night with his half-delirious mother, helping her to the bathroom as he comforts her with a description of the long happy life they could have had together, has an emotional clarity and dramatic straightforwardness the rest of this delicately moody film sometimes lacks. As an intimate chamber piece with pitch-dark subject matter, “James White” could only avoid bathos by featuring two actors at the top of their game, alive not only to the inner worlds of their own characters but to the shared world they both know they’re on the brink of losing. In that bathroom scene especially, both Abbott and Nixon deliver the goods. We already knew the “Sex and the City” alumna (herself a breast cancer survivor) was a gifted actress, capable of more serious things than shopping for Manolos and meeting her friends for brunch. With his breakthrough performance in “James White,” Christopher Abbott proves leaving “Girls” wasn’t such a bad career move after all. Read more.

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