VOD film review: James White
Paul Greenwood | On 22, Feb 2016
Director: Josh Mond
Cast: Christopher Abbott, Cynthia Nixon, Scott Mescudi
Watch James White online in the UK: MUBI UK / iTunes / TalkTalk TV / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
When we first meet the eponymous James White (Abbott), he’s in rough-looking shape in a nightclub, stumbling out into the daylight and directly on to a New York apartment filled with people whom he looks as though he has no place among. These, it transpires, are family and friends sitting shiva for James’ recently deceased father, among them his mother (Nixon) and his late father’s new family. Quickly making himself unwelcome, he goes out to continue drinking with a pal, leading to various episodes of trouble and hothead behaviour.
This is all part of a very strong opening that clues us in to everything we need to know about James without having it spelled out. We learn he’s unemployed, sleeping on his mother’s couch and somewhere in his 20s, drifting through life without direction and purpose. Mostly what we have here is a piercing character study about one particularly messed up individual, and, on another level, about the lies we tell ourselves and others. Unable to face his situation, James says he needs a holiday, that he’s going to eat healthy and exercise and write and when he comes back he’ll be ready for life. When his trip to Mexico is cut short after his mum takes ill, though, it might be the push into adulthood he needs, even if he’s barely able to look after himself, never mind his sick mother.
James White offers something we’ve seen before in many an American indie – the tale of a young man drifting through life – but it’s not often that it’s done with such impact and insight. James is clearly a deeply unlikeable character, and, on the surface, the thought of being dragged through this quarter-life crisis with him isn’t appealing. But though his behaviour can be self-destructive, this isn’t a film that allows him to wallow in self-pity or self-absorption, even if, to James, everything that’s wrong with his life is someone else’s fault. A pair of outstanding performances help, with Abbott doing enough to let us empathise with the noxious James, while Nixon is truly exceptional in a role that puts her through the wringer.
Filmed in a close-up and confrontational style, James White makes for extremely compelling drama, and the results have the feel of some of the great work of the 1970s, the kind of thing James Toback would have written for James Caan in The Gambler or Harvey Keitel in Fingers. It’s powerful and raw, pushed down with the weight of everything in James’ life without asking us to take pity on him, and, although it’s tough going in places, James White is still capable of being overwhelmingly poignant.
James White is now available on MUBI UK, as part of a £9.99 monthly subscription.