Another angry young man

The titular character in James White may be a stock movie protagonist but this film is intense and gratifying.


Christopher Abbott and Cynthia Nixon

The wayward, angry young man has become such a stock movie protagonist that it’s almost moved into becoming a cliché in real life. The Benjamin Braddocks, Antoine Doinels, Arthur Seatons and Holden Caulfields of this world continue to command attention in a world that has now opened up to more voices than just different versions of the same guy. I have to admit that I found the premise of James White somewhat suspect on its festival run — it seemed like it came from the same basic raw material as countless Sundance also-rans do every year, and I honestly wondered if I could muster sympathy for another one of these guys.

Judging James White by its cover or even its opening scene is a mistake. We’re introduced to James (Christopher Abbott) as he parties listlessly with people he doesn’t seem to know; he retreats from the action to listen to music on headphones that’s essentially negated by the thunderous dance music in the club. When he finally exits the club, we discover that it’s day — not only day, but the day of his father’s funeral. He shows up half-cocked to the shiva ceremony, meeting his father’s new wife (and new widow) and disappointing his mom Gail (Cynthia Nixon) in passing before grabbing his best friend Nick (Scott ‘Kid Cudi’ Mescudi) and heading to the bar.

james-white-03Slowly, the film reveals James as a sometimes hot-tempered, jobless “bum” whose life consists of couch-crashing, partying and sleeping. He’s self-destructive, but in a resolutely unflashy way. Where the film sometimes seems like it would dip into ’70s-style anti-establishment mode, it instead veers towards James’s complete apathy. This would likely grow tiresome if James White was a film about the discontent of the 20-something white man, his abundance of feelings and his desire to write for a living; it’s kind of about those things, but it’s also about family.

From the beginning of the film, it’s obvious that Gail has cancer. Eventually, the cancer reaches a stage four and, left without the option of treatment, she’s back at home. James sometimes manages to get it together long enough to help her out, but his life (or lackthereof) sometimes gets in the way. It’s a film full of repressed emotions punctuated by coiled rage (Gail suggests at some point that both she and James feel good things all the way at the top but bad things all the way at the bottom; I’d tend to agree with this bipolar diagnosis) that’s not so much about what’s being said and more about the way it’s said. James White eventually is, like a lot of these films, about a fuck-up who’s forced by circumstances to grow up. Don’t expect it to be very heartwarming, though.

Abbott is most likely known to audiences as Charlie, the fresh-faced preppy boyfriend of Allison Williams’s Marnie on the first two seasons of Girls. Little of Charlie transpires in the character of James, who comes across a bit like what Shia Labeouf would be like if he had no opportunities or way of release. It’s an intense, internal performance that doesn’t rely on grandstanding showcases, but it’s actually Nixon who walks away with the film. Her role would be an easy one to fuck up — I feel like there are a thousand “plucky single mother dying of cancer” scripts lining Julianne Moore’s recycling bin, but none of them quite like this.

Shot mostly in close-ups with naturalistic dialogue in New York streets that seem deliberately obscured and cast aside, James White brings to mind the work of John Cassavetes (who’s becoming an increasingly frequent influence in the work of young filmmakers — I feel like I’ve namechecked him more in the last few years than I have probably ever in the preceding two decades). Unlike Cassavetes, Mond isn’t really one for improvisation and long flights of fancy. Indeed, if there’s one thing that I could fault the film for, it might be that it falls too cleanly and smoothly into its narrative structure for a film that otherwise feels so frayed and intense. James White is an intense and gratifying film. Perhaps next time I list off a bunch of angry young men in a review intro, James White will be among them.

James White screens at the Phi Centre (407 St-Pierre) on Dec. 2, 5, 7 8, 10. See schedule and ticket details here.