Sundance 2015: Christopher Abbott Confronts Death and Destruction in Low-Key James White

By  · Published on January 30th, 2015

Relic Pictures/BorderLine Films

It takes seven stages to get over grief. Twelve steps to kick booze. An as-yet-undetermined number of steps or stages or whatever to stop being an unsympathetic and unmitigated asshole. Josh Mond’s James White chronicles the eponymous James White (Christopher Abbott), who could stand to benefit from attempting to take a few steps in any direction, as long as those steps are aware from his grief, his alcoholism, and his profound addiction to being an asshole.

Sensitively told and clearly close to Mond’s heart, James White follows James during a terribly gray period in his life, just after the death of his father (who he did not love) and the seemingly inevitable demise of his cancer-stricken mother (who he does). As James fumbles to come to terms with his life, he continually makes not just terrible decisions, but stupid ones, poor ones, idiotic ones, the kind that ensure that the haze and daze of his existence, the stuff he can attribute to a life steeped in guilt, won’t ever lift no matter how things shake out for him.

A generous way to put it would be that James has bad social skills or that he’s too emotional to act appropriately in fraught situations. A better way, a more accurate way to put it would be to call James an asshole, which he is. The early distance created between James and the audience, thanks to his repellent behavior, proves to be poisonous to the feature, creating a gap of emotion that is never quite filled entirely in. That would be unfortunate for any film, but for a film like James White, which trades in emotion, it’s nearly disastrous.

We first meet James in a strobe-lit, damply pounding nightclub, where he’s taken to drinking and listening to his own (far more gentle) music on his shiny white earbuds. He looks terrible, and that’s the point, because once James emerges out into the sunlight, he’s got a funeral to attend. More precisely, he’s got a shiva to attend, a days-long goodbye to his own father, who never had the good sense to do much for James. “We thought you’d end up in jail,” a friend of his dead dad jokes, and we’re almost with James, nearly there. For much of James White, and nearly all of the film’s first ten minutes, the camera consistently keeps close to Abbott’s face, and the immediate effect is one of intimacy, which soon gives way to claustrophobia. We can’t see all of his face, all of his surroundings, all of his emotion, no matter how close we are to him. We’d like to get away.

James’ father might be dead, but his mother (Cynthia Nixon, just lovely) is the one who is dying. James, a perpetual burnout, is compelled to help his mother, but he also appears to revel in the weird kind of freedom it offers him – as long as he has his mother to watch, he doesn’t need his own apartment or job or friends, because at least he has the kind of excuse that no one can argue with. His mother routinely admonishes him for not being here when she needs him here, when he says he’ll be here, but James seems unable to be fully present anywhere, and that he manages to show up for his mother at all is the greatest indicator that he’s actually a feeling human, which is rarely conveyed during any of the film’s other interactions.

James is never afraid to ask for help from others – especially his best friend Nick, played by an outstanding, if underutilized Scott Mescudi – and he even asks too much, crying out for assistance on things he should be able to do by himself, like wake up on time or take a shower or pick a clean shirt. If anything, James should ask for less help. He’s a freeloader and a loser, and no matter how much his grief might be tainting his experience, he doesn’t seem like the kind of person built for success. Abbott’s performance is revelatory, but the material doesn’t give as generously to its lead actor as he does to it.

Mond knows how to deliver important details without inelegant exposition, and a scene that takes place during James’ father’s shiva, one that involves an ill-timed wedding video, is an absolute stunner. Later, Abbott pours on the charm to get his mother a bed at the hospital, an enthralling bit of work that hums as much as it hurts. Still further on, James burns out (and not at all brightly) while begging for a job from a sharp-eyed Ron Livingston.

The pieces that make up James White, its best vignettes, are extremely strong, but the entire film doesn’t fit together as neatly. The film is Mond’s first, and while the feature’s writing isn’t deep enough or nuanced enough to illicit the kind of emotions James White appears to be going for, he has a keen eye and a wonderful sense of timing that should serve him well in his career. James White is a first feature, and that shagginess shows, but it’s also an admirable announcement of what both Mond and Abbott are capable of creating.

The Upside: Abbott’s excellent performance, lovely supporting turns from Nixon and Mescudi, intimate and energetic cinematography.

The Downside: Difficult to engage with Abbott’s character for first half, does not explore new territory, honest depiction of situations still do not feel fresh, scarifies emotion for formalism.

On the Side: Although James White is filmmaker Josh Mond’s first directorial outing, he’s produced a hefty number of excellent indie films, including Sundance darling Martha Marcy May Marlene.