This is rare, nuanced storytelling, anchored by one of Brad Pitt’s career-best performances and remarkable technical elements on every level. It’s a special film.
No film at Sundance this year hit me with more force emotionally than Josh Mond’s “James White,” a devastating dissection of a man who’s forced out of his arrested development and into adulthood by extreme tragedy and the responsibility that comes with it. Mond opens his film in close-up on his title subject, played with tragic realism by Christopher Abbott (“Girls”). James is drunk again. He’s barely upright in a loud club, putting in headphones to listen to his own music while people dance around him. James seems to be the type who can be alone in a crowd, and Mond captures that by having him listen to a melancholy tune via earbuds while more celebratory music pumps around him. He stumbles around the club, out the door, and into daylight, as the rest of the world seems to be going about its day. Was he there all night? Was he partying this hard in the middle of the day? It’s never answered but rarely has a character been so defined in a few, dialogue-less scenes, as is Mond’s visual style, keeping us close on Abbott’s face, creating a claustrophobic aesthetic that makes the emotions of the piece more resonant.
James’ father has recently passed and his mother (Cynthia Nixon, doing the best film work of her career) is sitting Shiva. James’ best friend (Kid Cudi) stops by to help offer support while most of the friends of James’ family seem to regard the young man with degrees of disappointment. Oh, it’s James, probably getting into trouble again. James is there for his mother as much as he can be, but he goes out a lot, getting into bar fights and getting royally messed up whenever he can. He’s a barely functioning alcoholic, someone who would be in a quarter-life crisis if he had the degree of responsibility to care enough where he was going. And yet Mond and Abbott don’t play White as a lost cause. He’s troubled, not damaged beyond repair.
White is forced to discard many of the tools—alcohol, drugs, irresponsibility—that he has used to shield himself from the real world when his mom’s cancer returns from remission with a force. There’s no one to take care of mom instead of James, and the hospital/hospice systems that one would hope would be there to offer guidance are often unresponsive. James has to deal with the unimaginable physical requirements of caring for a loved one who is dying and Mond doesn’t shy away from presenting it in all of its brutality. When he asks his best friend if he could take the burden of disposing of his mom's body when she passes, it's one of those heartbreaking cinematic moments that feels all too real. As much as I like “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” another film about cancer at this year’s fest, that movie is to “Fault in Our Stars” as this movie is to “Amour.” It’s stark, it’s terrifying, and it’s hard to watch. But it has to be because it’s about a troubled man pulled from his own destruction by forced responsibility. And Mond's visual style puts us right in White's face, feeling his pain.
Abbott is simply phenomenal here, never overplaying White’s demons to the degree that other actors would have with the same material. Alcoholic, troubled twenty-somethings can be catnip for actors eager to over-act, and then you add in the melodrama of a parent dying of cancer? Think of all the places this performance could have gone wrong. Abbott misses every trap. And, in doing so, he crafts one of the few characters from this year’s Sundance who I won’t forget. I'm also a sucker for films that really stick the landing and the final image of "James White" is as memorable as any I'll see all year: a man cast out of his comfort structure and uncertain of where he's going next.
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