Director: Josh Mond
Stars: Christopher Abbott, Cynthia Nixon
3 (out of 5) Globes
A troubled young man struggles with his problems and learns to fix himself through the death of a loved one. There’s two extreme ways this could go. One is a relentless, all-caps grindfest a la Gaspar Noe, the filmmaker smashing our faces in inventive unpleasantness. The other is a sappy indie with earnest music, painfully oblivious that its worldview is self-centered and noxious. “James White” finds a medium between the two, and a happy one, one that avoids the unsavory bits of both sides and finds something not only moving but exciting and insightful.
“James White” begins with the camera inches from the face of its hero (“Girls”’ Christopher Abbott), as though it’s about to push right inside it. The camera stays close to him as he rampages through his chaotic life, crashing a club, then the shiva for his estranged father, then back out again to start fights at bars and have random, drunken hook-ups. He’s a hothead, and one with a trust fund that’s always about to be depleted, and it always looks like he will blow. Sometimes he does. But there’s no clean, straight line for James, and filmmaker Josh Mond is as interested in his valleys as his…well, not peaks, but the moments when he’s less agitated, even peaceful.
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Things will go bad for him. His doting but occasionally tough love mom (Cynthia Nixon) will find that her cancer, once in remission, is back in full force. He nabs a girlfriend on an impromptu Mexico trip, but how long will she stay before noticing his temper? He has impossibly vague hopes of being a writer, but he shows up at his official interview with a family friend (Ron Livingston) looking and smelling foul. That scene is one of the keys to unlocking “James White” and the subtle thing it’s doing. Livingston’s character is sympathetic to James’ bad spot, but he knows he can’t hire him. In a lesser film, James would blow. Instead we watch, with tangled nerves, as Abbott carefully signals James slowly containing his rage and disappointment.
Abbott is not quite the whole show in “James White.” After sticking right on him in its opening stretch, the camera — wielded by the increasingly wondrous Hungarian cinematographer Matyas Erdely, who shot this season’s also Dardennes-esque Holocaust saga “Son of Saul” — opens itself up to showing other characters. The images doesn’t necessarily become “normal,” but they find a way of showing spaces while containing James inside them, making us feel trapped in a hectic life without ever feeling like a gimmick. Even the occasional long takes (Mond is not afraid to cut a lot) never feel like shtick, including one that holds as James cradles his mom, rattling off an imaginary, happy future, “25th Hour”-style, that she’ll never see. We get the impression it may still happen for him, but Mond and his actors find a way to make that more than a mere happy ending for a character who might not deserve it. We’ve watched someone slowly contain his rage and self-destruction and work his way to something better, all right in front of our eyes.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge