AFI FEST Review: Remarkable Filmmaking and a Heartbreaking Story Make ‘James White’ a Tragic Marvel

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At one point or another, each of us have to deal with the grief of losing a loved one in our lives. Sure, there are grief counselors and books written on the subject, but there’s no set of absolute rules for anyone dealing with the process of grief. James White, the feature length directorial debut of Josh Mond, is a character study of a young man trying to process his own grief in self-destructive ways. It’s not easy to sit through, but James White is a magnificently made film that is equal parts captivating and heartbreaking.

A hazy extreme close-up of the sweaty visage of James White (Christopher Abbott) opens the film. The young man is in what appears to be a nightclub, drinking his cocktail and putting in his headphones to listen to old standards instead of the electronic dance music pulsating in the club. When James leaves the club, it’s still light out in New York City and James enters a cab. He’s late to the wake of his father who has recently died. James was never close to his father, who left him and his mother Gail (Cynthia Nixon) years ago and remarried. Sleeping on his mother’s couch for the past few years, James has yet to find his place in the world and copes with the stressful situation with alcoholic indulgence, hitting the bars with his best friend Nick (Scott Mescudi). Hoping to find himself, James travels to Mexico for a few months of self-discovery where he meets Jayne (Makenzie Leigh), a younger girl that also lives in New York. But his trip is cut short when James learns that his mother’s cancer has returned, and he must spend his time trying to care for his mother when he’s not alleviating his stress with booze. The greatest challenge James faces is trying to keep himself together as the world he knows is changing all around him.

The emotional subject matter is amplified by Josh Mond’s stellar direction. The camera placement and framing is always in service the story. There’s an intimacy to the cinematography by Mátyás Erdély even when the camera is at a great distance from the characters on the screen. Many lengthy shots keep the emotion of a number of scenes feeling naturalistic and all the more heart-wrenching, especially one tender and tragic moment where James and his dying mother are holding hands, discussing a hypothetical future for the both of them that will never be. The intimacy and immediacy to the look of James White is a perfect complement to the human story unfolding before your eyes.

Christopher Abbot gives a magnificent performance as the eponymous character. You’re pulling for James White to put his life together, but he just can’t do it in the face of personal adversity. Yet Abbott retains a soulful tragedy to the character that you never give up on him even when he’s neglecting his responsibilities to escape his pain with a bottle. Scenes between Abbott and Cynthia Nixon are a masterclass in acting, tugging on the heartstrings without a forced sense of emotional manipulation. Like Abbott, Nixon gives a career-best performance worthy of awards consideration.

James White is a powerful drama that will make the most hardened moviegoer begin to well up at the painful story unfolding before their eyes. Josh Mond, who previously produced Martha Marcy May Marlene, makes a striking directorial debut about a character incapable of coping with grief in a constructive manner. Wisely, Mond keeps the film relatively short at just under 90 minutes as anything more would make James White even harder to sit through than it already is. But even though the story of James White is tough to sit through due to its tragic story, it’s still a vital work of remarkable filmmaking and incredible performances. Just be sure to bring some Kleenex because you’re gonna need it.

James White opens in New York on November 13th and Los Angeles on November 20th before expanding to other cities.

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