A stain of blood remains on a shower window after a night of debauchery, a son miles away from home tells his mother, “I love you” on the phone in a subtle register that suggests a history of tenderness and an immediate obligation of proximity between the two. The blood and the phone call can be read as mostly unrelated moments but they exist as remnants of lived-in experience rather than broad strokes, each aiding in our understanding of the protagonist’s stunted growth. Both moments also stand out as details that linger on in writer-director Josh Mond’s Sundance gem James White, a film which follows an aimless and fiery twentysomething (Christopher Abbot) working on getting his shit together as his mother deals with a serious illness. It’s a premise that veers dangerously close to eye-rolling at first glance, but Mond’s confident debut feature lends credence to the notion that proper observation and pathos can do much to transcend the face of familiarity. The camera stays with the titular fuck-up (Abbot), creating a subjective intimacy that transitions from dubious to disarming very quickly. We first meet James during a drug-fueled stupor, just before taking a cab back home to sit Shiva for his recently deceased, estranged father. Minutes later, he and best friend Nick (Kid Cudi) get involved in a bar scuffle after James insults a female patron for talking too loudly. The next day, James awakes with a black eye and tells his cancer-recovering mom (Cynthia Nixon) that he’ll be “ready for life” after a quick vacation in Mexico where he plans to rid himself of his vices and welled-up familial emotions. He meets an attractive girl (Makenzie Leigh) on the beach, someone to hang out with during his stay, and just as these two start to become a couple, James’s blissful retreat away from stress and responsibility is brought to a sudden halt when his mom calls, announcing that her cancer is back.
Mond’s confident debut feature lends credence to the notion that proper observation and pathos can do much to transcend the face of familiarity.
James’ return home teeters between further episodes of truthful irresponsibly (he shows up to a job interview at New York Magazine underdressed and smelling of booze), and a chamber piece quality with James and his mom together in the most private and difficult of moments. If not for title cards announcing the arrival of each month, we would have less of a grasp on the film’s sense of time, which seems to slip away and hint at the inevitable feeling of loss. The narrative is linked via a natural shroud of death, but James White maintains a stature of lucid dreaminess where the main character is trekking through real terrain while trying to be the best version of himself. Most importantly, Mond isn’t interested in mining for our tears or using James as easy bait for empathy, but the achievement is met anyway, filling the final third of the film with painstakingly observed moments like James finding a new bed for his mom at the hospital after shitting herself, or getting through a really rough night of sickness. Previously a producer on ambiguous and dark-hearted films such as Afterschool, Martha Marcy May Marlene, and Simon Killer, Mond’s debut feature is surprisingly untethered from such dreary fare in its ability to convey truthful moments without the tendency toward sensation. This is not to suggest that James White isn’t bleak—given the subject matter, it is plenty bleak—but in the hands of Mond, Nixon, and the blossoming talents of Abbot, James White feels like rite of passage cinema that cares more about the moments that go unnoticed.