James White (2015) Sundance Review

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What: Film Review
Directed and Written by: Josh Mond
Produced by: Sean Durkin, Antonio Campos, Max Born, Melody C. Roscher, F.A. Eric Schultz
Starring: Christopher Abbott, Scott Mescudi, Cynthia Nixon, Makenzie Leigh, Ron Livingston, David Call
Language: English
Running Time (in min.): 86 minutes
Rating: Not Yet Rated
Winner of the Best of NEXT! Audience Award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival

****

The emotional collapse of a grieving young man becomes the stuff of high drama in the newest film from the New York-based Borderline Films collective. James White, the feature debut of Josh Mond as writer/director and Martha Marcy May Marlene’s Sean Durkin and Antonio Campos producing, announces itself as both the completion of the group’s first filmmaking cycle and as a major star-making vehicle for Christopher Abbott (Girls, The Sleepwalker.) Add to the mix its recent Audience Award win following its World Premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, and Mond’s debut looks to bring the entire team into the daylight of acclaim.

What follows in that regard will be deserved, as Mond demonstrates a sensitive hand behind the camera, especially when it comes to his performers. Abbott’s James is a noxious trust-fund baby with a bone-deep sense of entitlement and a wild streak. After his estranged father (Scott Cohen) passes away suddenly, James embarks on a bender of reckless sex and daytime drinking with his best friend/enabler Nick (Scott Mescudi, who also composed the synthpop-heavy score). Somewhere between the bar fights and recovery days spent on his weary mother, Gail’s (the amazing Cynthia Nixon), couch, the news comes that she is also quite sick.

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If the film opens with its protagonist already spiraling down into spoiled, About a Boy-style habits, the news of Gail’s terminal illness cranks up the volume on the destructive voices inside her son’s head – to the point that he starts to endanger himself and the people who can’t help but love him. Abbott anchors the film with such immense charisma, shame, and sadness that when he first starts, then nearly sabotages, a new relationship with Jayne (Makenzie Leigh, sweet and strong), the entire twenty-minute-sequence feels emotionally complete. Mond cautiously sympathizes with rather than diagnoses White’s behavior, though, a choice that makes the healing process seem both Sisyphean and universal – which, of course, it is.

Southcliffe cinematographer Mátyás Erdély here does not so much follow White as he maps the character’s movement through extended tracking close-ups and rigorous handheld camerawork. Gail and James’s apartment is a wonder, with Jade Healy and Scott Kuzio’s production design allowing Erdély to trace Abbott, Mescudi, Nixon, and sometimes an entire crowd from room to room without sacrificing visual continuity. Mond and the actors inhabit this space with utter authenticity, neither calling attention to its basic functionality as a proscenium nor appearing to be in any space other than the family home. For a first film, Mond’s work is remarkably natural.

While the Borderline folks have impressed with decidedly darker psychological studies, first with Campos’s accomplished 2008 debut Afterschool and Durkin’s Haneke-like cult thriller Martha Marcy et al. [2011], Mond adheres to a more sentimental and less complete narrative arc. It’s safe to call James White the collective’s most humanistic project to date: both a character study of White’s breakdown, semi-recovery, and self-help process in contemporary New York; and an accomplished ensemble chamber piece, where even the briefest moments elevate the drama. Nixon, beautiful and miserable in equal measure – her emotional syncopation in scenes with Abbott should be taught in acting classes – allows herself to disintegrate physically before our eyes. The image of Gail unable to get off the toilet in her swanky Manhattan apartment calls to mind Christian Bale’s much-lauded transformation in The Machinist, but to even more disturbing results.

Similar work comes from Mescudi, a badly behaved but loving counterpart for James’s more aggressive style; Leigh, a regular on NBC’s upcoming series The Slap whose appearances here suggest a well of charm and poise; and Ron Livingston, as an executive at New York Magazine with White’s best interests at heart. Still, the film is Abbott’s, and the role a game-changer for the actor whose recent work in fest hits like Todd Louiso’s Hello I Must Be Going [2012] and All That I Am [dir. Carlos Puga, 2013] only hinted at the depths within. Mond and Abbott, whose working relationship has extended across half a decade, is a collaboration born from mutual darkness and a skill for unleashing inner pain. It might not sound like the happiest pairing, but in the case of James White, it resulted in one of Sundance’s most assured pictures.

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