James White (Christopher Abbott) and James White are both aimless, tormented and embattled creations. The young man often wears a black hoodie and listens to ear buds while roaming the streets of New York City, closing himself off from the world in order to avoid the inevitability of change. He inhabits dark clubs, listens to trance music, occasionally gets into fights, and hooks up with girls before retreating home to his sickly mother (Cynthia Nixon) who’s suffering through a final bout of cancer.
The film follows James relentlessly with handheld cinematography, hovering over his shoulder, watching and waiting for him to combust. But most surprisingly, he rarely does. The explosions that do happen are almost entirely internal. We see him stewing and complaining, withering away from anger and regret after spending years caring for his mother. This provides a striking emotional juxtaposition to the physical decay he’s witnessed over that timespan.
Written and directed by first-time filmmaker Josh Mond, who produced the equally taut anti-thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene in 2011, James White is an unnervingly personal character study about alienation and self-pity in the millennial age. Its compositions are closed off, tight and suffocating, matching the character’s emotional perspective on life. Conversations unfold without any hint at closure.
Unlike the characters in the work of Lena Dunham or Alex Ross Perry, James is not an intellectual, but a middle class child of divorce forced into adulthood at far too young of an age. He has talent as a writer, or so says some family members and friends. But when he goes to a job interview with a family friend (Ron Livingston) who works at a newspaper, he provides handwritten scribble as an example of his work. This shows the true disconnect between James’ reality and the reality of being a working professional.
The real revelation here is Christopher Abbott’s performance as James. At first he seems to embody your normal angry young man with the kind of brute force one would expect from a modern malcontent. His relationship with a high school girl named Jayne (Makenzie Leigh) is expectedly rocky, a desperate last stab at some kind of meaningful future. They meet in Mexico during an impromptu vacation, but upon their return home to New York City the relationship splinters. Mond purposefully detonates the idea that a romantic relationship will save James, and this realization leaves a sting.
As the film progresses, James’ mannerisms and expressions become more vulnerable and broken. We begin to understand that James is not a monster, but a man whose purpose has never been defined. His present is completely weighed down by a traumatizing past. During a devastating final scene with his mother, James paints an imaginary future they might share living in Paris. It’s a staggeringly frank admission of failure transcribed through hopeful fantasy.
Nixon’s turn as Gail White is equally devastating. Her character’s fragility and degeneration are never played up for sentiment, but instead framed as a gut punch of reality that James has been trying to hide from for years. Whenever they are on screen together, Mond’s film becomes a potent two-hander of great power and weight.
James White, which opens Friday, Nov. 27, at Arclight La Jolla Cinemas, paints a dire picture of young adulthood that doesn’t provide us with any hint at an easy answer. Ambiguity defines almost everything except the finality of death, something James cannot quite fathom even as Gail drifts away.
Despite its bleak melodrama, the film does flirt with the idea of James getting his act together. The magnitude of its final scenes just might shake this foreboding character to his core. Whether or not you believe this will happen says a lot about your own outlook on life.