James White (2015)
Dir. Josh Mond
Starring: Christopher Abbott, Cynthia Nixon, Makenzie Leigh, Scott Mescudi
Review By Greg Klymkiw
With James White, his first feature film as a director, acclaimed producer Josh Mond (Martha Marcy May Marlene) has not made it especially easy to like his title character. In fact, he's made it downright difficult to even like his movie.
This is not as bad as it sounds.
James (Christopher Abbott) is a spoiled twenty-something jerk with no job, no prospects and no ambition. He whiles his Manhattan days and nights away in clubs, fraternizing with pals (most notably old chum Nick, played by rapper Scott Mescudi), getting into macho bar brawls, drinking like a fish and ingesting all manner of hallucinogens. He couch surfs in mom Gail's (Cynthia Nixon) comfy apartment and seems oblivious to being a screw-up, not just in life, but in the one thing he's supposed to do properly - take care of his mother who is recovering from cancer.
He's recently lost his father (Gail's ex) to a heart attack and though he cherishes his Mom and wants her to be around a good, long time, he keeps screwing up with his relatively simple chores like making sure her scrips are filled. He even bamboozles her into forking out enough dough to head down to a Mexican resort to "clean himself up." It's the last thing he does, of course. Meeting another New Yorker, the gorgeous Jayne (Makenzie Leigh) he continues ingesting booze, drugs and getting more than his fair share of nookie.
"Alas", his "recovery" vacation is cut short by the news that Gail has had a relapse. Here the film settles into a detailed and harrowing virtual two-hander as a wayward son provides palliative care to his mother who is in Stage 4. Gail is in and out of consciousness and quickly deteriorating physically. James is often stymied by what he's supposed to do, but he refuses to give up on making her every last moment as comfortable as possible.
In her last days, the film's POV upon James comes from Gail and hauntingly, it's the first time we see why she loves him. We even vaguely come to understand why he might not be a complete piece of shit. It's not only haunting, but downright heartbreaking and anyone who has experienced the last days of a beloved parent in palliative care will be rendered to mush as the painstaking reality of both the performances and events are infused with a reality we seldom see in movies.
Abbott as Chris goes all out in making his character as repellent as possible, but when faced with the reality of a Mother who is dying, he also lets us in - just a sliver, mind you, but a shard that is lodged deep with us so that we find ourselves inhabiting his point of view.
Cynthia Nixon delivers one of her sharp, wisecracking, vaguely annoying performances (a la the sicking Sex and the City), but even she manages to let it all hang out in the final third so that we, like her son, desperately hope she'll stop suffering, which she does, but not before Nixon emits one of the most creepily realistic death gasps you'll experience in any film.
Love and connections are made, but the notion of redemption finally seems ambiguous. This is as brave and powerful a stand for any drama to take. I don't like this film, but I cannot help but admire it wholeheartedly.
The Film Corner Rating: *** 3-Stars
James White is in the TIFF 2015 Discovery series and distributed by Films We Like.