There’s a scene late in Josh Mond’s heartbreaking film James White in which a son cradles his cancer-ridden mother in the bathroom and talks her down from a fevered deliriu m. In a quiet and even tone, he spins a story about a future time in which they will live next door to each other in her beloved Paris, with his (non-existent) wife and kids doting on them both. They both know it’s a sad fantasy. He’s reached the tail of his 20s without achieving a thing, but she clings to the story like a drowning sailor to a life preserver. It’s a beautifully tender moment while also being unbearably tragic, not just with regard to their particular circumstances but in what it represents for all of us. It’s about taking refuge in the potential held by the future until the reality of the present grabs you by the throat. Time — a tricky and fluid element in this movie — is everyone’s worst enemy. The worst (and yet most inevitable) moments of your life feel like they’re so far away and ethereal that they may not even happen. And then, suddenly, those moments arrive and you’re not the least bit prepared.
The twist here is the arrival of some bona fide difficulties and tragedies. Already reeling a little from the death of the father he never really got to know, he discovers that his mother’s cancer, recently believed to have gone into remission, has returned.
The titular character — played by Christopher Abbott from Girls, in an astonishingly nuanced and practically feral performance — is less prepared than most. The film opens with him heading straight from an all-night bender at a nightclub to his estranged father’s shiva. To be fair, he hardly knew the man. He was raised by his mother Gail (Cynthia Nixon, coming close to stealing the show from Abbott) in a beautiful apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, ensconced in comfort and privilege. And it is soon made clear that — as is so often the case — he’s done little with that social and financial leg up. He is, in fact, that figure so ubiquitous in American independent cinema – the directionless urban 20-something-going-on-30 who still lives like a college student and remains immersed in petulant rage and self-pity over the non-issues he believes to be insurmountable obstacles. The twist here is the arrival of some bona fide difficulties and tragedies. Already reeling a little from the death of the father he never really got to know, he discovers that his mother’s cancer, recently believed to have gone into remission, has returned.
This is where James White — the character — deviates from the grating millennial archetype he begins the film as and James White — the film — comes to be about something more than the existential angst of yet another self-entitled brat. We discover that, unlike so many fictional characters of his ilk, he does not take his mother for granted. The dynamic between the two — loving, loyal, heartwrenching — takes over the movie and gives it both momentum and depth. James had nursed his mother through her previous bout with cancer and he does so again as it returns. These scenes form the backbone of the movie as deeply affecting portraits of the stresses that terminal illness can put on both the patient and the caregiver. Nixon does a lot of the heavy lifting here, bouncing between clear-headed concern for her unmoored son and bouts of raging dementia that are more terrifying to watch than the most extreme horror movies. That said, Abbott is the volatile heart of this story, present in every scene. Mond’s camera focuses almost exclusively on him, often pulling in uncomfortably tight in extreme close-ups, lingering on his reactions to his mother’s suffering. The claustrophobic, verite-influenced aesthetic accentuates the intimacy so evident between Gail and James but it also successfully simulates the caregiver’s helplessness, the feeling of being trapped in one of the most emotionally devastating situations a human being can be in. To be stuck in the six square inches between Gail, James and that camera is to feel like you’re actually in a dying person’s sickroom.
James White isn’t perfect. It miscalculates early on, reaching a little too hard to make its protagonist’s childish acting out feel sympathetic and taking that side of him a little too far in certain scenes. But when it works, it remains one of the most effective depictions I’ve seen of grief and the rage-filled aimlessness it so often engenders.