Showing up late and drunk to sit shiva for your own father is a good sign you might do well to make some changes in your life. But that red flag entirely escapes the notice of James White (Christopher Abbott), a twentysomething New Yorker who, in the opening scene of the movie bearing his name, stumbles out of a pulsating nightclub into the morning light and makes his bleary way to the apartment of his mother, Gail (Cynthia Nixon), who’s hosting the memorial. James’ parents, we learn through oblique scraps of dialogue, split up years ago; his dad’s current wife, whom James appears never to have met, is also in attendance with her young daughter. When a guest has the bright idea to pop in a home video of the deceased’s second wedding, the volatile James explodes, throwing out most of the guests.
That opening sequence, with its tight hand-held close-ups, overlapping dialogue, and lacerating emotional intensity, sets the tone for the power-packed 85-minute movie to come. James White is the debut of writer/director Josh Mond, a member of the Brooklyn filmmaking collective Borderline Films, where he helped produce such lo-fi indies as Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene. If you liked that movie’s vibe—a curious blend of dramatic rawness and stylistic indirection—you should be down with James White, which simultaneously puts its viewers through the wringer and leaves them wondering exactly what just happened, and what it all means. There’s a foggy, drifting quality to Mond’s storytelling style that befits this portrait of a young man who is himself adrift in the adult world.
This isn’t the first time the handsome, dark-eyed Abbott has appeared as a privileged young New Yorker clinging too long to the comforts and pleasures of adolescence. For the first two seasons of Girls Abbott played Charlie, the easy-to-push-around boyfriend of Allison Williams’ ambitious but insensitive Marnie. When Abbott abruptly left Girls, there was conjecture—some of it snarky—that he was looking to take on darker, more challenging roles before he got typecast as an amiable punching bag. If that’s true, with James White Abbott—who will reportedly return to Girls next season for a single-episode appearance—has achieved his goal. James White is the kind of role any young actor might quit a hit TV show to play: On screen for virtually every minute of a film named for his character, he’s followed in near-constant close-up by Mathyas Erdely’s nimble camera as he skids between extremes of grief and ecstasy, anxiety and hope. (The unsettling electronic score, composed by Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi—who also nicely underplays in the role of James’ best friend—reflects James’ stormy inner state.)
James may well be—as his ex-schoolteacher mother complains with equal parts exasperation and affection—a pampered, hedonistic layabout more interested in identifying as a writer than doing the work it takes to become one. But Lord knows you wouldn’t wish the year he’s having on your worst enemy. Only weeks after losing his father, James —on a vacation to Mexico that he swears will be just the thing to restore his emotional equilibrium—gets a call from his panicked mother: Her cancer, which had been in remission, has returned, and she’s been diagnosed at stage 4. (There is no stage 5, as the dying protagonist of the one-woman show Wit—whom Nixon once played on Broadway—observed.) Accompanied by the high school-aged girlfriend he’s picked up in Mexico (Makenzie Leigh), James gets back on a plane to the city. There he will tend to his rapidly dwindling mother and continue to party as hard as he can get away with.
James is a disaster of a human being, but he’s a devoted (if disorganized) caregiver, advocating forcefully for his mother to get the best medical care. As Gail’s physical and mental condition deteriorates, James’ degree of maturity and self-discipline begins to rise—but he’s starting from such a low floor, he can’t keep up with the devastating speed of his mother’s decline. He punches out a stranger at a party, cheats on his girlfriend with random bar pickups, and sabotages himself humiliatingly in a job interview with a family friend (sensitively played by Ron Livingston, all grown up since his own slacker days in Office Space).
In a more conventional, less rigorous telling of this story, James’ coming of age and Gail’s departure from this world would keep pace with one another, and mother and son would overcome their differences in a weepy deathbed reconciliation. Instead, James White ends on a note of irresolution so pronounced in its ambiguity that the first screen of credits comes as a genuine surprise: It’s over? Already? But a late scene in which James stays up all night with his half-delirious mother, helping her to the bathroom as he comforts her with a description of the long happy life they could have had together, has an emotional clarity and dramatic straightforwardness the rest of this delicately moody film sometimes lacks.
As an intimate chamber piece with pitch-dark subject matter, James White could only avoid bathos by featuring two actors at the top of their game, alive not only to the inner worlds of their own characters but to the shared world they both know they’re on the brink of losing. In that bathroom scene especially, both Abbott and Nixon deliver the goods. We already knew the Sex and the City alumna (herself a breast cancer survivor) was a gifted actress, capable of more serious things than shopping for Manolos and meeting her friends for brunch. With his breakthrough performance in James White, Christopher Abbott proves leaving Girls wasn’t such a bad career move after all.