James White opens with an unflinching close-up on the face of its titular protagonist (Christopher Abbott), a ne’er-do-well young man, getting messed up in a Midtown Manhattan strip club in the middle of the day. The camera stays so fixed on his countenance, blurring in and out of the tight focus, that we begin to feel claustrophobic, caught in his self-serving drinking binge, until he finally lumbers out of the club and tumbles into a taxi headed uptown.
When the camera finally does ease back, it’s a relief. But the effect of the first shot, forcing us into a painfully close proximity, never quite goes away. That effect expands, as we watch this strikingly intimate affair, following James’ harrowing experience of yet another traumatic loss in a life already too filled with them. Josh Mond’s movie is an unwavering gaze into an abyss, provided by absolutely stirring performances from his lead performers.
The taxi James enters is heading up to his father’s wake, held in his mother’s apartment, where he’s been living the past few years, futilely trying to “get his act together”, but mostly just drinking, drugging, and meandering through his days. Ostensibly, he’s taking care of his mother Gail (Cynthia Nixon), a retired schoolteacher stricken with intermittent cancer. Roughly the first half of the film follows James’ slack-line lead, heading on a whim to Mexico with an old friend (Scott Mescudi), a comedian who works children’s parties among other low-hanging gigs. There, he meets the young and beautiful Jayne (Makenzie Leigh), who, it turns out, also lives in NYC. Living large amidst the sea and sand, the irresponsible James is thoroughly unprepared when his mother calls him frantically, telling him her cancer has returned — and spread.
Coming home to care for her, James’s lollygagging gives way to a new reality. He flips between bouts of drunken recklessness and intensely loving care for Gail. The revelation of James’ genuine big heart sets his past unruliness in a completely different light. His escapades aren’t a fulfillment of a willfully self-serving man, but the actions of a terrified child, deeply unhinged at the thought of being alone in the world, a brutish escapism for someone whose emotional core is in the process of being shattered.
While Nixon, who survived breast cancer in 2007, is absolutely sensational, it is Abbott, whose previous work included a short stint on the Girls (he reportedly left because his character wasn’t doing anything particularly interesting), who is a surprise. He imbues James with both dynamic self-loathing and deep sense of affliction, so that he shifts between irritating and mesmerizing.
The actors are never better than in the film’s emotional climax, an extraordinary scene between mother and son in her cramped bathroom one miserable evening in the late stages of her disease. As the cancer has thoroughly ravaged her, James helps her to the toilet, and then, the two collapse into one another as he spins a sweet Paris fantasy for the both of them, he with a wife and two happy children, she living next door, taking the kids to museums, and meeting an attractive ex-pat.
James thanks her for this life: “You are responsible for all this beauty,” he says, as Mond pipes in Billie Holiday’s “There Is No Greater Love” in the background. The greatest gift James can provide his mother is the thought that she somehow managed to raise him well enough so he can imagine his own happiness, though we realize, as they do, that it’s likely beyond him. Through it all, a single handheld camera offers access to this most difficult moment without seeming obtrusive. The frame is no longer focused on James alone, as in the opening shot. He’s expanded his worldview to include his mother.
We might say that James White hits the emotional journey pegs of standard Hollywood dramas, in which a former cad experiences loss and humility and grows into a better man. But it also dispenses entirely with the typical mawkishness and simple personality transformations. If James has learned anything losing Gail, it’s left remarkably unclear. When we watch him at the end, the camera is again gazing on his face, but in a wider shot, less fixated and disassociated. He smokes a cigarette, looks out into the night, a man haunted by what he has endured. We leave him, as he has nowhere left to go.