Powerfully written and directed by a first timer, the producer Josh Mond (Martha Marcy May Marlene), the raw, heartfelt, and highly stylized James White lands it punches.
Christopher Abbott (Girls) plays the lead character, a volatile, broody, Upper West Side, twenty-something New York slacker who goes into a tailspin after the death of his distant, elusive father. Disconnected, jobless, and lost, he spends most of his time boozing, getting high, clubbing, getting into bar fights, and sleeping around. He knows he’s supposed to be caring for his loving, cancer-stricken mother (Cynthia Nixon), a former schoolteacher on whose couch the directionless White sleeps off his frantic days and nights; he’s just too caught in his own downward spiral to be of much use where it matters.
As his attempts at caretaking for his mother become even more screwed-up – to put it mildly – he takes off with his buddy (musician Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi, in a terrific natural performance) to the beaches of Mexico. He’s told his mother that he wants to spend the trip pulling himself together and doing some of the writing he keeps talking about. It doesn’t work that way. His pain, passivity, and messed-up quality attract the attention of a high schooler (Mackenzie Leigh from Gotham), a fellow New Yorker, who seems to find him as pitiful as she does tempting. (She gives him a handjob but not much else). But he’s summoned back to the city when his mother’s illness dramatically worsens.
His mother accurately pegs him as “selfish,” and both the movie – and Abbott’s unflinching performance – never undersell how hard a character he is to like, let alone love. The scenes between Abbott and the superb Nixon are profoundly painful, loving, and riddled with impending loss and grief. A vigil the lead character describes to his mother a trip they will never take is almost unbearably poignant and both actors play it subtly but to the riveting, gut-wrenching hilt.
James White is a deeply moving debut for Mond, a gorgeously made, beautifully acted stunner that is especially painful because it’s so obvious that it comes from a deep personal place. But the movie’s worth every moment you give it.