Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A character study in character-building: Josh Mond's anxious, harrowing JAMES WHITE

Everyone's off-balance and elusive -- yet they sure seem real -- in JAMES WHITE, the first full-length feature from independent producer and now writer/director, Josh Mond (shown below). In a movie not given to any exposition, we learn only gradually about its eponymous hero, as well as the folk who surround him: his mom, best friend, friend-of-the-family and possible new boss, and (after a bit) a new girlfriend. Instead, we simply watch for clues from the behavior on view -- much of which is pretty awful: angry, self-destructive, sad.

James White is a harrowing film, for obvious reasons because it deals with sickness and death (our hero's mother, beautifully played by Cynthia Nixon), and for less obvious ones because our hero (Christopher Abbott, below), whose anxious, angry, depressed, self-defeating character is brought to vivid life via Abbott's performance, remains in a state of anxiety-tamped-down-via-drugs-sex-and-aggression from first moment to almost last. The filmmaker concen-trates most on James, but each subsidiary character, via the speci-ficity the performers and the skillfully elusive screenplay, manages to shine through, as well.

Mr. Mond's favors close-ups, but these are as often likely to be disconcertingly moody and unpleasant (above), rather than the occasional bright and beautiful shot that takes our breath away (as below). Abbott's usual adorable face is here semi-hidden behind a scruffy beard, and though we travel with James from New York to Mexico and back again, as our boy tries to escape from responsibility and adulthood, even the "good times" are fraught.

Nixon, below, radiates love and strength in her healthier moments. As she sickens and weakens, she comes close to breaking our hearts. There is a particular scene near the film's conclusion, as James recounts to his mom a future which will never be, that is as beautifully written and performed a bit of screen time as anything you'll have seen this year.

The excellent Ron Livingston essays the role of the family friend and possible employer with great strength and sensitivity, while Scott Mescudi (below, right) in the role of James' best friend, gay-but-not-that-it-matters, does a fine balancing act between enabler and genuine helper,

while Makenzie Leigh (below) offers just the right touches as the convenient girlfriend who's probably not in it for the long haul. She's lovely and definitely usable but not perhaps a keeper. Though neither seems to be our James.

James White may be an easier film to appreciate than to love. James' character, as envisioned by Mond and brought to life by Abbott's performance, takes no prisoners. More than once during the film, you'll want to deck our hero and then kick him in the head for good measure. He's a misogynist and a bully, but given what has happened to his parents, and by extension to him, this may be grounds for some extra empathy.

The movie -- from The Film Arcade and running just 86 minutes -- opens in New York City at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema this Friday, November 13, in Los Angeles at the Arclight Hollywood on November 20, and in another dozen cities across the country in the weeks to come. Click here to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters.

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