In hindsight, watching James White on the same day that I found out that a family member had passed away was probably not a wise move. It not only stirred up thoughts of the cancer that impacted my family on that day, but also the ways the illness has wrapped its vile claws around those I have loved in the past as well. However, in a strange way, it is this same personal connection that made me appreciate the plight of the self-destructive young man at the film’s core even more.
It is easy to see why many around James White (Christopher Abbott) would consider him a screw up. He has no job, freeloads off his family, and thinks every problem can be solved by drinking oneself silly. He is on such a misguided path that even his sixteen-year-old girlfriend (Makenzie Leigh) seems to be more mature than he is. When one of his father’s colleagues jokingly remarks “we thought you’d be in prison by now,” one gets the sense that this is a common refrain by many who have encountered James over the years.
There are times when even those he is closest to, his best friend Nick (Scott Mescudi) and his ailing mother Gail (Cynthia Nixon), wonder if he will ever get his act together? It is only when observing his relationship with his inner circle that the root of James’ behaviour becomes apparent. Estranged from his recently deceased father, James has been left to bear the burden of his mother’s illness for the last four years. Suffering from Stage 4 Cancer, Gail is the rock, and sometimes the overbearing anchor, that James he has leaned on. She has always been the one to encourage and guide him even though he frequently stumbles off the right path. Now facing the harsh realization that she may never get better, James’ only means of coping is to try and numb the pain one bottle at a time.
Making his directorial debut, Josh Mond’s film hits an emotional nerve in a way that never feels false. It would be easy to dismiss James as nothing more than a “spoiled brat,” but that would overlook the subtle, but powerful, level of pain the character is enduring. Through Mond’s confident hands the film avoids many of the conventions one would expect from a drama like this. The audience never sees a before or after portrait of James’ life. There is no reassuring speeches – the closest being Gail’s pleas early on for James to write down his feelings – instead Mond merely offers a snapshot of a moment in time, one where the level of fear, uncertainty, and grief is almost too much for James to handle.
Christopher Abbott gives a star-making turn in the titular role. His effortless performance runs through a gambit of emotions in such a way that the audience wants to both shake and hug James simultaneously. Regardless of whether he is conveying James’ volatile and immature nature or his compassionate side, Abbott is captivating to watch. It should also be noted that Cynthia Nixon is simply sensational in the role of Gail. Nixon skillfully walks that thin tightrope that divides illness and co-dependency. At times Gail seems just as potentially damaging for James when she is well as when she is sick. James White a film that lives or dies on its performances and both Abbott and Nixon are more than up to the task.
Moving without feeling manipulative, James White offers a glimpse into the life of a young man that really needs to get his life sorted out, but has no clue where to start. The film is as much about the bonds that make families whole as it is about the illnesses that unfortunately rips them apart.
James White begins its run at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Friday, November 27th