A couple of the films I have loved this year are big blockbusters with special-effects. Mad Max: Fury Road. The Martian. These are fine films, with grounded stories, superb acting, gorgeous and evocative effects and high stakes. Hats off.
But the stories I am drawn to are small intimate character-driven ones, and 2015 has been a good year for that, don’t let anyone tell you different. (Welcome to Me. Breathe. The Diary of a Teenage Girl. Love & Mercy. Girlhood. Love at First Fight. El Cinco. The Ocean of Helena Lee. Magic Mike XXL qualifies too). In many ways, such films are harder to make, or at least pull off successfully, because there is nothing to fall back on but emotional reality. You cannot hide behind anything, not even plot really. There is no smoke-screen of special-effects that takes up the conversation. Either you believe what you are seeing in these small films, or you don’t. Emotional reality is much more difficult to portray than gigantic explosions in a desert.
Written and directed by Josh Mond, James White is Mond’s confident and terribly upsetting first feature. It tells the story of James White (the amazing Christopher Abbott), a lost soul living in a swirl of drugs and alcohol, always with a black eye or cuts on his knuckles from random bar fights, trying to navigate his mother’s cancer. James’ mother is played by Cynthia Nixon, in an incredible performance. James, who has nothing else going on, no job, no goals even, is his mother’s primary caretaker.
The film is grueling because of its raw emotional honesty. It is fearless and specific in its portrayal of a family member’s final illness, and how scary it can be, how unpredictable, and – most importantly – how disorienting. That’s the thing that nobody tells you about or prepares you for. There is so much to DO in such a situation, every day another problem,, and it’s like you’re trying to handle all of it with half of your brain blocked from functioning. This is what hospice workers and counselors and good friends can help with. They understand that the caretaker needs help too.
James White opens in a dingy raucous dance club, with a wandering drunken tracking shot.. James White is drinking, his face drenched in sweat. He appears to be having some kind of panic attack, his breath high in his throat. Cinematographer Matyas Erdely keeps the camera tight in James’ face, unforgivingly, as he stumbles around, no break from that perspective. (Much of the film is this way, dovetailing with the title.) Close close, James is seen in profile, with blurry golden and blue lights from the other room behind his head, the glass of golden-brown liquid coming up to his lips. When he launches himself out the main door onto the street, he comes into daylight. That opening scene feels so 3 a.m. The daylight is jarring, giving that opening scene perspective on the man onscreen. He’s wearing a hoodie. He looks clammy and unwell. He hails a cab, tells the driver an address, and it’s a high-end Manhattan address, involving Riverside Drive. Looking at this guy, you’d imagine him an East Village or a far-out-in-Brooklyn person.
In the elevator at that address, surrounded by quiet people, James White, again, seems extremely sick. Like he might vomit or faint. He walks into an apartment, and it is filled with quiet murmuring people. Many are dressed in black. James maneuvers through the crowd, and there are double-takes. At his rough appearance? At his clear under-dressing for this solemn event? He makes a beeline for Cynthia Nixon, and greets her. It’s his mother. She is polite, bright even, but murmurs to him, “Did you go to the pharmacy?” “I’ll go later.” Still with that veneer of brightness, but with an edge underneath, she says, “You have to do what you say you’re going to do, James.” But the event moves on. We learn that his father just died, and mourners have gathered together. The situation is complex. James’ Dad had left the family a long time ago. He had recently re-married, and it’s the first James had ever heard of it. He says Hello to his dad’s new wife and daughter, and he is polite, nice to the child (there are a couple of moments in the film showing him being nice to children: a shading of the character, of which there are many in the film), but is totally off-put by the wife. Fuck her. Who the hell is she to be sobbing on his mother’s couch, his mother whom his father LEFT?
What then follows over the course of the film is a couple of months in the life of James White. We get the picture of his chaos. His mother is in remission for her cancer. James has been crashing on her couch for two years, still under the delusion that she needs his help, when really, she wants him to get his act together, grow up, get a job, get his own place. At the same time, though, she calls him a lot, wondering why he wasn’t home, she needs him, can he do an errand for him, “You have to do what you say you’re going to do, James,” she says again.
Scott Mescudi (a rapper and music producer who also was one of the producers of James White) is so excellent as Nick, James’ best friend from childhood, who now lives in Salt Lake City, dressing up as a clown for kids’ birthday parties. Once upon a time he wanted to be an actor. At one point, he walks around a pool, with full clown makeup on and a red nose, approaches the camera (supposed to be James’ perspective), and says right into the camera, “I hate my life.” Nick has flown home for James’ dad’s funeral, and the way Cynthia Nixon looks at the two young men sitting on the couch together, or eating omelettes in the kitchen, speaks to the long long history there. “It’s so good to see you two together again,” she says.
Nick seems more stable than James, but still: the two go out drinking together and get into tons of trouble. There’s a bar fight. There appears to have been … a foursome? The two sneak out of the unknown apartment, leaving two naked bodies asleep in the bed, giggling and whispering like naughty teenagers. But there is true affection between the two men, a welcome and beautiful corrective to the “dudebro” brand of friendship currently dominating the multiplexes. As though that is the only way that men can connect.
Ron Livingston is so great as an old family friend who works as an editor at New York Magazine, treats James with kindness, wants to help, but there’s that slight distance there between two people who have such different lives. Livingston’s character has known James since he was a kid, knows he’s a good person ultimately, wants him to know he is cared about, but there’s that little wrinkle of worry in his eyebrows. Everyone seems to look at James and think, “What the hell is going to happen to such a person? Can this trajectory of self-destructive aimlessness be stopped?”
James White is full of unexpected subtleties. It is not a melodrama. It is not the typical story of a loser-guy fucking up repeatedly, although he actually is that. There are moments when you might think it will go that way. On a random trip to Mexico, a month after his father died, he meets a young girl (Makenzie Leigh) on the beach. And she’s young, as in high school young. She’s reading Wuthering Heights. He asks her “What are you reading?”, and when she tells him, he says, “That’s a good book.” You think at first she might be a “manic pixie dream girl,” the fantasy-figure with no life of her own who “saves” our gloomy-gus hero by showing him the joy one can take in life. James White does not go that way.
When James’ mother’s cancer returns, he devotes himself to her care. Things are serious. The sheer level of trust and intimacy between these two actors is both crushing and heart-rending. Reminiscent of the unblinking Amour (which I had the honor to write up, along with Melancholia, in The Dissolve’s 50 Best Films of the Decade So Far compilation), James White understands serious illness, how it intensifies, how things go. James is now in charge of managing his mother’s fever, and helping her go to the bathroom. The closeness of the relationship, how much both of them have relied on one another throughout their lives (since father/husband split) is palpable. It doesn’t even need to be said. It’s there between them.
James’ life spirals down, with drugs, freak-outs, failed interviews, bar fights, but when it comes to his mother, he does what is necessary. James’ mother is not always a brave inspiring figure, as cancer-patients often are in film (so insulting.) She can be querulous. Even in a rage. She’s impulsive, she fights, she turns on James. Sometimes she refuses help. Sometimes she demands it. And then, too, she is tender, tender, tender, with such softness you want to weep. They are in this together.
And THIS is what life is so often like. Life is NOT always a series of events where people let each other down. This is what John Cassavetes meant when he talked about how in the old studio system days, the so-called “old-fashioned” directors wanted to tell stories that illuminated the human soul. Even a villain’s soul was a “distinct thing,” observed Cassavetes. Those films believed in things like love and honor, as fixed entities. The films were not particularly optimistic all the time, but they acknowledged that human beings had souls (Cassavetes’ main thing), and that there were some fixed values in human life. Cassavetes, supposedly this hip modern man (and he was), did not like cynicism in film, did not like films with a pessimistic outlook (and he was making films during one of the most pessimistic decades in 20th century America). He LOVED people. Even when they were total messes, they were doing the best they could do. They have souls. Love exists, and is worth fighting for. People are NOT pieces of shit who always let each other down. They don’t always do the right thing, and they mess up more than they succeed, and life is messy and fucking unFAIR, but God, don’t you love these characters? demanded Cassavetes: Aren’t they so pathetic, so heroic? Don’t we just LOVE them?
Well, yes. We do.
James White owes a lot to Cassavetes in its interests and in its style, and its three-dimensional portrait of a man and his mother. It leaves nothing out. It’s tough to watch, especially if you have had the experience of a parent’s long illness, difficult decision-making, feeling so alone. There’s one scene where James takes his mother to the ER because she has a fever and she doesn’t know what year it is. She lies in a bed in the ER, disoriented. She has soiled herself, and James is so upset, frantic to get her moved into the hospital, to get her taken care of. While his demands do not have the shrieking power of Shirley MacLaine’s similar demands in Terms of Endearment (“GIVE MY DAUGHTER HER SHOT!!!!!”), there is a similar urgency. He becomes a tragic hero. Abbott is amazing.
James, who messes up everywhere else, who gives up on himself, who falls in love and then ruins it, who drinks and drugs his way through grief, pulls his shit together to get a bed for his mother in that hospital. NOW.
This is an extraordinary film, with some scary scenes, some funny scenes, some startling scenes, but they all feel right, they all pour into the whole of the narrative, unexpected though they may be. The film includes scenes of such openness, honesty, closeness, courage, that you end up just thankful that the film exists. That it was brave enough to look at mortality without blinking, to feature a mother-and-son relationship with such love and detail, to stick with James – difficult as he is – to let him BE, to not make the character beholden to any plot-device borrowed from any other movie, to let him be the man he is, to let his LIFE unfold as it would in reality …
A film like this has a lot to say about who we are, what matters, the mistakes we make, the strengths we have. It is not simple. The catharsis moments, when they come, feel like they may be in the “wrong” order, but that is just because the culture is so steeped in cliches. Things do not move in a linear fashion. We do not always make sense, either to ourselves or those we love. We are not always aware of what is happening in our inner souls. We have to figure it out. Sometimes we fight that off because it seems the truth might be unbearable.
And yes. The truth is often unbearable.
Seeing a film like James White gives me hope.