James White (Christopher Abbott, A Most Violent Year) is an emotional wreck. His father has just died, and James is tasked with caring for his mother (Cynthia Nixon, Sex and the City), who is battling cancer.
That's more or less the whole plot of James White, which places an ordinary young man into a tragic scenario and then zeroes in on his grief and despair. We have some idea of what kind of person he was before all of this happened, but the person we see for the duration of the film has clearly been profoundly damaged. We're introduced to James in the confines of a loud, sweaty nightclub, where he dons a pair of earphones and drowns out the pounding techno music with the lush, melancholy sounds of Ray Charles' “Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying.” It's a striking opening, infused with deep emotion despite the fact that no context has been given and no dialogue has been spoken.
As time passes and his mother's situation grows more dire, James has less and less control of his emotions. Shortly after his father's death, he bluntly calls a random stranger a “c---” (the stranger responds by throwing a drink in his face). That's mild compared to the moments that come later, when James seems so possessed by his anguish that he enters a state of blind, primal rage. He hurts himself, he forgets to shower, he neglects the basic social niceties that are required to participate in civilized society. In one sad, tender scene, a family friend (a superb Ron Livingston, Office Space) who had offered James a job interview attempts to give James some sense of awareness about what he's doing to himself. Livingston's words seem to register on some distant level, but James seems too numb to do anything about it.
There are other supporting characters present: an old best friend (musician Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi, who also provides the film's score), a new girlfriend (Makenzie Leigh) and so on, but these characters often feel curiously out-of-focus. The film only cares about them to the degree that James cares about them, and lately, he's having a difficult time paying a lot of attention to the people, places and things he probably ought to pay attention to (James has so little interest in a sympathetic grief counselor that the film doesn't even bother showing us the counselor's face). People do their best to show James kindness, but he's oblivious to it at best and completely unreceptive at worst.
Perhaps James' behavior will seem like an overreaction. A lot of children are forced to watch their parents die, and quite a few of those deaths are long, agonizing and drawn-out. Painful as it is to be faced with the prospect of losing one parent right after the other, this is part of life. However, what the film seeks to illustrate is that grief can be so all-consuming that it leaves no room for reason. Grief is also maddeningly inconsistent, crashing in and departing in violent, jagged bursts. The music on the film's soundtrack offers a reflection of this, as Cudi's ambient, moody score is intermittently interrupted by soulful, melodic bursts of old standards from Charles and Billie Holiday.
Abbott's performance is one of the year's best, a simultaneously frightening and heartbreaking study of a man coming apart at the seams. He's gripping during his outbursts, but just as compelling during the quiet moments – it's clear that he is uncomfortable with the silence of his mother's home, and his desire to stay with her and care for her is often in conflict with his desire to run away and hide from his own thoughts. In his current state, he is capable of great emotional cruelty, but also of great tenderness. There's one particularly astonishing long, unbroken take in which James attempts to give his mother some semblance of comfort, and his well-intentioned lies are so beautifully sincere that he almost seems to be convincing himself. Abbott drives the scene, but the power of the moment depends just as heavily on Nixon, whose work here often feels so authentic that you quickly forget who's playing the character.
The film was written and directed by first-time helmer Josh Mond, whose work here offers a striking balance between bold stylistic choices and no-nonsense cinema verite. Mond lost his own mother in 2011, and though the film isn't autobiographical, it began as an attempt to work through his feelings on that loss. Imagine Ingmar Bergman's Cries and Whispers as helmed by John Cassavettes, and you have some idea of the feeling James White generates.
This is a great film, and a difficult one to endure. It offers the viewer none of the gentle fantasies that James offers his mother, plunging us into the depths of James' despair and never giving us a moment to come up for air. Like Michael Haneke's Amour, it has a deep understanding of loss and a tremendous amount of empathy for its characters, but it refuses to look away from some of the most inexplicably agonizing parts of the human experience.
Rating; ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 87 minutes
Release Year: 2015