If a drama wants to tap into primal, real emotion, featuring a flawed lead is paramount. For audiences to find a part of themselves in that character, imperfection is necessary so the viewer doesn’t just observe. Instead they can insert a memory of theirs, or a personal struggle, into the narrative. Take one look at Josh Mond’s James White, whether at the poster, the trailer, or the synopsis, and you can tell that his directorial debut features just that. A man who is not perfect, a man whose downfall is his ongoing effort to be perfect, and a man who doesn’t understand that such a goal is unattainable.
James White is as layered as the man at its center, and should definitely be seen.
This man is the titular James, a 21-year-old New Yorker who bears a history brimming with self-destructive behavior. His mother, who has cancer, consistently urges him to find a job and support himself, a notion James procrastinates on pursuing, believing it to be simple. Life, however, becomes far more complex when his father, who divorced his mother long ago, dies. After a therapeutic trip to Mexico, life takes a bigger, more drastic turn, as James’ happiness is suddenly threatened, and he must collect himself before it’s too late. In this struggle, he’s constantly hindered by the way of the world and his past, then slowly, as time begins to dwindle, he questions whether or not he can achieve what’s best for his family. Love blends with frantic worry, and the result is heart-wrenching.
James White does so many things perfectly, and it should be happy it does, because underwhelming on too many fronts can plunge a drama into the realm of the melodrama. Exposition is absent in lieu of ambiguity that asks us to imagine how severe James’ past is, and subsequently, what terrible path he’s brought to by his relapses. We know how volatile and vulnerable he can be thanks to harrowingly invasive close-ups that capture every facet of Christopher Abbott’s stellar performance. Cynthia Nixon counters Abbott’s “emotionally crippled son” with her “mentally stricken mother” to masterful effect, as the two share familial chemistry of unprecedented strength. Feelings of acute nostalgia and lost memories are brought about simply through moments they share onscreen. Often, long takes will be employed to capture this as clearly and intimately as possible.
It tells truths of the human condition, and how a flawed human compares their long-term problems with their current and urgent issues.
As James goes about life in the face of his problems, he is a nervous wreck, worried his past will resurface in some way, determined but never wholly dedicating himself to becoming the perfect son. In equal measure, he seeks to better his behavior toward his friends, his mother, and himself. He’s a sympathetic character in every sense of the word. And tragically, he exists in a paradox. His mind won’t let him accept that his mother’s decline and his goodness as a son aren’t tied to one another, so as his mother declines, so does he. Desperately, he fights to stay afloat, but knows he can’t. Because, to him, the fact that he has the capacity to relapse means he can never truly escape self-destruction. It will always be there, waiting.
So, undoubtedly, James White is bleak, but a profoundly rewarding, wonderful, grand kind of bleak. It tells truths of the human condition, and how a flawed human compares their long-term problems with their current and urgent issues. James White is as layered as the man at its center, and should definitely be seen.
James White is bleak, but a profoundly rewarding, wonderful, grand kind of bleak.