James White (2015) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): He is a mess – and his mother is sick

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Patiently following and observing its flawed young hero, “James White” shows us a painful but inevitable process of late maturation. He has looked away from what he does not want to deal with for years, but then something happens to someone he cares about most in his problematic life, and he finds himself in a demanding circumstance where he cannot avoid his responsibilities anymore. As he gradually comes to be more matured than before, the movie doles out several moments of quiet emotional power, and they feel all the more touching when we reflect on its hero’s difficult emotional journey.

Christopher Abbott, who previously played a supporting character in TV series “Girls” before this movie, plays a young man named James White, and the opening scene of the movie shows James drifting here and there around in a night club somewhere in Manhattan. While drunk and tired to some degrees, James does not seem to be enjoying himself, and it is already early morning when he gets out of the nightclub and takes a cab for going to his mother’s apartment, where she is holding a Shiva meeting for mourning for her Jewish ex-husband. Although he was not that close to his dead father, James respects his mother’s wish anyway, and he tries to look polite in front of others at least.

As shown from the personal moments between them, James and his mother Gail (Cynthia Nixon) have been close to each other, and their bond has been more deepened as they have lived together for two years since she became ill due to cancer. Now she seems better than before, so she reminds him that he has to move on for his life, and he promises that he will pull himself together after having a rest for a while in Mexico.

We soon see him enjoying his vacation in Mexico, and it looks like everything will be fine for him in the end. As being more relaxed than before, he befriends a girl named Jayne (Makenzie Leigh) after their accidental encounter on the beach, and they enjoy themselves together while accompanied with his best friend Nick (Scott Mescudi, who also composed the score for the movie).

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However, there comes a sudden change. He receives an urgent call from his mother, who gets very sick again as her cancer returns. He quickly comes back to New York City along with Nick and Jayne, and he pays more attention to his mother, but her health keeps getting deteriorated with no sign of remission. At one point, she shows a sudden mood swing, and then she goes outside alone for no particular reason. When he eventually finds her, she is apparently not all right in her mind, and we get one of the most harrowing moments in the film as he tries to calm down her agitated mind as much as he can.

After later coming to learn that there is really nothing he can do for her mother except easing her pain, James is devastated a lot, and that puts him into more confusion and frustration. His relationships with Nick and Jayne become strained as he hurls himself into late night drinking as he did before, and that is eventually followed by a sobering scene between him and one supporting character, who genuinely cares about James and accordingly gives him an honest opinion on how messy James is.

The movie is not very comfortable to watch to say the least, but director/writer Josh Mond keeps holding our attention while steadily maintaining the level of emotional intensity. As his cinematographer Mátyás Erdély, who previously did an astonishing job in Oscar-winning Hungarian film “Son of Saul” (2015), has his camera constantly stay around James, we come to focus more and more on the thoughts and feelings churning inside him, and we come to understand and emphasize with him – even when he is more or less than a selfish jerk.

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Two leading performers of the movie are terrific in their earnest nuanced performance. I must confess that I did not notice Christopher Abbott much even though he appeared in several acclaimed films including “Martha Marcy May Marlene” (2011) and “A Most Violent Year” (2014), but he shows me here in “James White” that he is a talented actor to watch. Throughout the film, his performance never hits any false note while subtly conveying his character’s inner turmoil, and I think we can expect more from him considering how he has continued to advance in his career with more notable films including “It Comes at Night” (2017).

On the opposite, Cynthia Nixon, who has been mostly known for TV series “Sex and the City” but should be recognized more for her more serious performances, is fabulous as the other emotional half of the movie. While quite believable in her character’s physical/emotional struggle with cancer, she is also convincing in her interactions with her co-star on the screen, and there is a very touching moment when Gail is soothed by her son during one particularly difficult night. For making his mother feel a bit better, James tells how his life will be once she gets better, and we are moved as observing that he now has something to motivate him more than ever.

Although it won the NEXT Audience Award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and then received a substantial amount of acclaim when it was released in US several months later, “James White” has been unfortunately overlooked since that. and that is a really shame considering how good it really is. This is indeed one of the small forgotten gems of 2015, and I think you should give it a chance someday.

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