When a film has a mostly unlikable protagonist, it can be a doubled edged sword. On the one hand, you have to appreciate the talent of the actor (especially if he or she is clearly stretching themselves), but on the other…how much does that affect your enjoyment of the film? It can vary, but James White manages to work due to the relatable nature of the protagonist, played by Christopher Abbott, and especially the scene stealing supporting turn by Cynthia Nixon. It might be uncomfortable for some to see how much of yourself at one point in your life is in his performance, but it’s definitely intentional. Writer/director Josh Mond is able to mostly take what’s obviously a personal story and make it universal, which is a credit to him as an emerging filmmaking talent. Armed with Abbott and in particular Nixon, he more than capably depicts some realistic life events, uncomfortable as they may be. James White starts out a little rough, but by the end, it likely will win you over. In no way is this a flawless work, but the good more than outweighs the bad. Especially if you like character studies, this has something to offer. James White doesn’t make it easy, but if you give it a chance, you’ll likely find yourself moved by the film.
The movie centers on its namesake James (Abbott), a man in his early 20’s who still more or less acts like a teenager. He doesn’t have a job, mostly just hangs out with childhood friend Nick (Scott Mescudi), and causes trouble at an alarming rate. James has a good heart and clearly is grieving the loss of his father in some way, but when we meet him he’s just killing time living on his mother’s couch. That’s not an acceptable option for mom Gail (Nixon), who wants him to become an adult. Her slow debilitation to cancer makes it impossible for James to ignore responsibility, though his self destructive behavior doesn’t particularly cease, even when folks like Ben (Ron Livingston) attempt to help. By the halfway point, it becomes a quest for James to control himself, a struggle that you’re not sure he’s going to be able to win. James White is a quiet character study, up until it periodically explodes with rage, that is. You sit back, watch, and hope for the best. A passive viewing experience, this is not. Again, the emotions here are raw, so that could be rough for some, but it’s an experience worth having.
Even though this is a starring role for Christopher Abbott, it’s Cynthia Nixon who walks away with the film. James White props up Abbott as the protagonist, and he’s very good, but Nixon may well break your heart. He’s a bundle of rage, hidden behind a laconic nature, while she’s a strong willed woman slowly having everything taken from her. The dynamic that they have with each other is quietly powerful, to boot. Abbott is going to get more leading man roles from this, mark my words. Again, it’s not a likable character, but you feel for him, and that’s what’s important. As for Nixon, she’s a dark horse for Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars. If she catches on with the precursors…watch out. They’re the selling points of this one, but Scott Mescudi turns in effective supporting work, while the aforementioned Ron Livingston is always a welcome presence in anything. Mescudi in particular has a real future in the business, considering his charisma. Also in the cast are David Call, Makenzie Leigh, and more, but it’s really all about Abbott and Nixon here, with the latter being worthy of awards consideration. It’s a small cast, to be sure, but it works for the vision set forth here.
Filmmaker Josh Mond undoubtedly is speaking from the heart here. James White is at its best when it leans into that, so there are times when his desire to make this cinematic goes against his best nature. Mond is an effective director, but his writing his more developed than his direction, so occasionally the look doesn’t match the feel, as it were (the cinematography by Mátyás Erdély is solid though, don’t get me wrong). That being said, he has a terrific handle on how to ably direct his cast, so there’s that. He gets the performances that he does out of Abbott and Nixon, which deserves a ton of praise. Essentially, this is a good movie, but I’m even more excited for what he opts to do next, as he’s an artist who definitely has something to say.
In the end, James White is a slightly flawed but still overall effective character study that undoubtedly is worth your time. Abbott is good, Nixon is great, and Mond is a filmmaker worth watching out for. If you like independent cinema that rewards and challenges you in equal measure, this could be for you. Watch out for Nixon, but everything here is of note. Give a shot to James White and see what you think…
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!