“You are responsible for all our happiness.” That is a pretty big burden to carry, but James White tells his dying mother, Gail, exactly this when they are imagining a future where they have both moved to Paris and James has a wife and two children. Josh Mond’s directorial debut James White is a powerful, moving, provocative and sensational film. Mond is the third in the collective that makes Borderline Films (alongside Simon Killer director Antonio Campos and Martha Marcy May Marlene director Sean Durkin) – they have each produced each others films and now it’s Josh’s turn to direct.
Looking back at his own experience of his mother dying of cancer, Mond has pieced something incredibly sincere and special with James White. It’s raw and upsetting, it doesn’t try to sugarcoat the characters or give them excuses, but instead provides a vital piece of storytelling fulfilled by two powerhouse performances from Christopher Abbott (Girls) and Cynthia Nixon (Sex & The City). It seems sort of important to note that both Abbott and Nixon were made most famous by their roles in HBO television shows and perhaps James White is an interesting postmodern illustration that some of the world’s very best performances today are on television.
Having freshly experienced the death of his father and meeting his father’s second wife for the first time at his wake, James’ life seems to be spiralling. He can’t hold down a job, has an issue with drinking, partying and sometimes violence. When the news reaches him that his mother’s cancer has returned, his fight or flight response jumps in and he splits himself between hedonistic alcohol fuelled nights followed by nights where he stays up all night with his mother, checking her temperature or carrying her to the toilet.
Two important elements bring James White to life; the script, which is touching and subtle. There aren’t any big melodramatic realisations or reveals, but instead humans communicating (or the lack therein) with each other. A particular sequence (as highlighted above) where James and Gail are talking about a future that both of them know will never happen is incredibly poignant and forceful. The second element are the performances, especially from Abbott and Nixon who bring this film to life with vibrancy, passion and love. Their chemistry with one another sets the screen alight; they truly understand how the other is feeling.
This was never going to be an easy sell of a film, but it’s truly astounding when certain films break though and yet little known gems like James White don’t get the attention they deserve. A magnificent feat in personal filmmaking indeed.