In treat­ment

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JAMES WHITE, drama, rated R, Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Arts,

In James White, writ­ten and di­rected by Josh Mond, James (Christopher Ab­bott) — a good-look­ing, un­em­ployed heavy drinker in his mid-twen­ties — lives with his mother, Gail (Cyn­thia Nixon), a for­mer school­teacher, on Man­hat­tan’s Up­per West Side. James has seen Gail through more than one can­cer treat­ment cy­cle, and as the movie opens, she is still weak from her last bout with chemo­ther­apy. She is host­ing a shiva for her ex-hus­band, James’ fa­ther, even though she’s not Jewish and her ex re­mar­ried years ear­lier. Her in­ex­pli­ca­ble be­hav­ior frus­trates a per­pet­u­ally frus­trated James, who is more com­fort­able on an anony­mous barstool than deal­ing with an apart­ment full of strangers mourn­ing his es­tranged fa­ther.

James is an open wound con­stantly in the process of cau­ter­iz­ing him­self, and James White is about how dif­fi­cult this is when he’s also car­ing for his mother, who has been sick his en­tire adult life. Mond lim­its the story to James’ point of view, which could be de­scribed as claus­tro­pho­bic. If James doesn’t want to look di­rectly at some­one or some­thing, then we don’t get to. If he wakes up hung over, breath­ing roughly, con­fused by his sur­round­ings, we are with him in his daze. His choices bewil­der oth­ers, and the story en­larges when they bring up salient de­tails that he seems to be ig­nor­ing. This de­vice isn’t mere style; it sym­bol­izes how hard James works to re­main on the sur­face of his ex­is­tence.

Af­ter his fa­ther dies and James finds him­self more out of con­trol than usual, he de­cides to visit his child­hood best friend, Nick (Scott Mes­cudi), in Mex­ico, where he works at a re­sort. When James comes back, he prom­ises Gail, he’ll be ready for life. Whether or not that’s true be­comes ir­rel­e­vant, be­cause Gail’s can­cer re­curs and ev­ery­thing is up­ended once again. Though James can be vi­cious and even vi­o­lent to strangers, he is noth­ing but pa­tient and gen­tle with Gail, a for­mer school­teacher. She has in­stilled strong val­ues of fam­ily and in­tel­lec­tual cu­rios­ity in him that he can’t fig­ure out how to live up to; she also has the ten­dency to treat him like a ten-year-old.

Ab­bott, Nixon, and Mes­cudi — who com­posed the orig­i­nal score — de­liver im­pec­ca­ble per­for­mances. Sto­ries about peo­ple with can­cer, or peo­ple car­ing for loved ones with can­cer, have be­come ubiq­ui­tous enough to con­sti­tute their own genre. Though some of th­ese sto­ries floun­der in sen­ti­men­tal­ity and cliché, oth­ers are gen­uinely dif­fi­cult to watch, be­cause watch­ing some­one die is dif­fi­cult. James White has the rhythms of a lit­er­ary novel, com­plete with a show-don’t-tell aes­thetic. It is raw, yet fleshed out enough to of­fer real emo­tional im­pact to view­ers who are will­ing to watch some­thing they know will make them sad. — Jen­nifer Levin

Mother load: Cyn­thia Nixon and Christopher Ab­bott

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