Title: James White
Director: Josh Mond
Starring: Christopher Abbott, Cynthia Nixon, Scott Mescudi, Mackenzie Leigh, David Call, Ron Livingston
Growing up is not easy, and that makes a character with a stunted sense of maturity perfect for the focus of a film. Usually, this character makes an appearance in comedies, with an exaggerated childishness prohibiting his or her development used to humorous effect. Portraying a similar situation in a drama can be just as compelling if not even more so, but it is underlined with a certain sadness. James White is the story of a man who has avoided becoming an independent adult due to his circumstances and a lack of desire on his part to accept the reality of his life, and it is most definitely not a comedy.
James (Abbott) is first seen sweating through the night at a club, acting as a disc jockey. He walks outside into an unexpected daylight and hops into a cab to the Upper West Side in New York City. He arrives at a shiva being held by his mother for the father who she divorced years earlier. James is wearing a sweatshirt and looks distinctly out of place, surrounded by sympathetic mourners dressed in suits. This moment is definitive of James and his behavior: never appropriate for the situation and not helped at all by his indifference to what others think about him.
Grieving for a lost parent provides the impetus for James’ mother (Cynthia Nixon) to encourage him to get his life together and become independent. A vacation to Mexico puts him in the right mindset, but a return of his mother’s cancer while he is away undoes all the positivity he has accomplished. By the nature of his situation, James must become more mature and try to grapple with the difficulty of what is happening and the fact that he is powerless to stop it. James is not in control, and seeing him lose his cool is not a pretty sight.
Abbott, who has been a regular at Sundance the past few years and who previously starred in HBO’s Girls, has just the right demeanor to play James as a deeply flawed protagonist, one who is entirely unapologetic for how he behaves towards other people yet does not seem confident in himself either. It feels as if James recognizes that he is not his best self, but he is not taking active steps to change that. Abbott’s performance is genuine, intense, and sympathetic. Nixon delivers an excruciating turn opposite him as a woman suffering deeply, which makes the film difficult to watch. Close cinematography gives the film a very personal feel, and it can be accurately described as an intimate experience. It is not the kind of film that seems destined for a happy ending or even a conclusion that indicates change may be on the horizon, but rather a portrait of a flawed young man who many New Yorkers and twentysomethings everywhere may well be able to relate to more than they might expect.
This Sundance NEXT entry has held several public screenings in Park City thus far, with one more scheduled.
Written by Abe Fried-Tanzer