Dark stories of self-destruction and suffering tend to be the narrative bread and butter of Sundance. They’ve become such a cliché that some wary audiences’ hackles tend to rise at the slightest sign of despairing stories that are anything but the feel-good hit of the year. Producer-turned-director Josh Mond navigates some of these familiar and potentially off-putting terrains in his feature-length debut, “James White.” The results are mixed, but thanks to a strong visual eye and a terrific cast, this anguished but intimate coming of age tale tends to recompense for some of the darker and more despondent elements that will test some resolves.
Opening in a dank, sweaty club, the titular James White dances with such feral abandon it suggests catharsis and some kind of spiritual exorcism. It turns out to be the eve of his father’s wake and the troubled 20-something New Yorker’s hedonistic binge lasts until the early dawn. Estranged from his father who abandoned him early in life, White clearly has issues simmering inside that he steeps in alcohol. Eyebrows are raised when the disheveled young man arrives at the service late, reeking of booze and in serious need of a shower. James White, it’s clear, is a hot mess.
Reckless and aimless, feeling all his emotions at an uncontrollable white hot level, James White likes to drink, fight and fuck. But when his mother’s cancer comes back to ravage her, the young man has to try and confront his grief and personal demons and man up as a caretaker. Unprepared to deal with such a momentous difficulty, the callow and underdeveloped White faces a challenge he is emotionally ill-equipped to face.
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Also penned by Mond in what is clearly an autobiographically influenced tale, “James White” is an intimately observed character study with damaged edges. While the movie possesses coming-of-age elements, what ultimately unfolds is a moving love story between mother and son. Mond’s film doesn’t feature traditional structure or many familiar character beats of self-improvement, but as a visceral, in-the-moment portrait of struggle and suffering, it’s a striking first film.
“James White” is at times bracing and hard to watch. What is vibrant and arresting in the first half becomes dour and hard to endure when the toll of cancer eats away at both mother and son. Anchored by two terrific, honest and brutally vulnerable performances by Christopher Abbot (“Girls”) and Cynthia Nixon (“Sex In The City”), the movie’s second-half agonies are at least convincingly rendered.
A strong supporting cast helps the cause. Ron Livingston co-stars as a magazine editor and family friend sympathetic to White’s plight. A surprisingly good rapper/actor Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi plays White’s best friend (refreshingly, he just happens to be a black gay man, with no other qualifiers to his identity needed), and the drama also stars David Call (“Tiny Furniture,” “Smash”) and Mackenzie Leigh (“The Good Wife,” “Deception”).
Christopher Abbott’s abrupt departure from “Girls” at the top of season three —a jarring event even Lena Dunham recently said she was unprepared for— suggested a frustrated actor wanting to stretch his wings. The actor’s already proven himself to have a eye for smart indie fare (“Martha Marcy May Marlene,” “Hello I Must Be Going,” and “The Sleepwalker”), and the way he made the most of a very small role in “A Most Violent Year” indicates a hunger inside for more. “James White” certainly affords him the opportunity, and he digs in with gritty, unblinking force. This should be a defining role that gives him the recognition he deserves.
Produced by Antonio Campos, Sean Durkin and the team that brought us “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and “Simon Killer,” “James White” is essentially cut from the same kind of aesthetic cloth. While it’s perhaps not quite as accomplished as those two films, it does have its assets. Mond seems particularly in his element when communicating White’s frenetic angst. All of the club scenes are particularly engaging, throbbing with booming sound and visuals bordering on abstractions. The filmmaker’s not afraid to get very, very close. The first 10 minutes of the drama attempt to redefine the close-up; the camera practically pressed up against the face of its troubled lead. And then there’s the perspiration and smell.
“James White” reeks. For better or worse, Mond and cinematographer Matyas Erdely capture that sweat-stained debauchery that is derived from endless nights of unkempt excess. If the movie came with smell-o-vision, one would find it redolent of b.o. and cigarette butts. And I mean this as a compliment. The filmmaker achieves the sensation of submerging you in that bedraggled state.
However, the film is admittedly uneven. It has the two modes of debauchery and wrenching travail, and the second half is a hard road to travel and almost overdoes it. As macho as James White is, perhaps the most interesting dichotomy of the movie is the character’s masculinity juxtaposed next to his mama’s boy affinities and tenderness. White might be a royal fuck up of epic proportions, but his love for his mother knows no bounds. This contrast goes a long way in forming what feels like a three-dimensional portrait and explains how the character’s relentless chase to self-gratify is a tool to drown his sorrows and inner torment.
Featuring a solid soundtrack, the brassy howl of Billie Holiday figures prominently, providing the film’s other form of catharsis, with the jazz legend crooning about loving life, accepting pain and keepin’ on. “James White” is about broken people barely holding on while trying to cope with unbearable pain, and the experience can be bruising. But without ever feeling the need to show you hope or redemption, a recognizably real humanity still bleeds through. [B]