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