James White (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Josh Mond, “James White” is like reading the diary of a person struggling with overwhelming forces of life and the owner consistently proves to be ill-equipped to handle the unceasingly increasing weights coming from all directions. Clearly, this work is not meant to be entertaining or life-affirming, but it is nonetheless illuminating. It captures a son’s unconditional love for his ailing mother even when he himself, because of his own personal demons, is in no state to care for another human being.
The title character is played by Christopher Abbott and the camera follows him like a vulture stalking a dying animal. Most impressive about the performance is Abbott’s ability to channel different forms of emotional and psychological suffocation. A breakdown in a hotel room with his best friend (Scott Mescudi) and girlfriend (Makenzie Leigh) is heartbreaking, frightening, and maddening. And yet despite such conflicting emotions, we empathize with him first and foremost. One can make the case that he is a product of his environment.
The screenplay provides no deep or detailed concept of his life. And so we surmise. We observe where his mother (Cynthia Nixon) lives and the sorts of items inside the home. She lives quite comfortably and there is a brief exchange about how she is able to support James for four years (he argues that it has been only two years) despite the fact that he does not have a job or a place of his own. We get the impression that he probably has had it easy since childhood through his teenage years and early twenties. Now that he is closer to his thirties, easy does not cut it in the real world where one is faced with illness and mortality.
But the movie does not judge its character. After all, does a vulture judge its prey for having fatal wounds? Instead, it watches unblinkingly. It is patient. It captures every telling moment. That is what makes the film a challenge to watch; it is not afraid to show the subjects being pushed to their limits. It shows the kind of difficult images one might encounter in real life, even in our own families where someone’s health is in steady decline. I appreciated the film’s unwavering honesty.
“James White” has great ability to surprise us especially since we are forced to make convenient assumptions about the protagonist. His go-to when things get difficult is hard drugs, alcohol, and dance clubs. But in this story, there is no rehabilitation or easy plot twists that suddenly make everything all right. Instead, there are a few glimmers of true humanity that emanate from our stereotype or categorization of the man. We root for James to get his act together, even though at times he comes across like he’s not even trying, because we recognize that his flaws are our own, too: We all, at some point, have taken or continue to take our parents for granted.