James White (2014)
Written & Directed by Josh Mond
The first thing you notice is the extreme close up of the young man’s face, the titular James White. Next, you see the abstracted background, unfocused to the point of becoming an impressionistic blur. The message is clear: we’re going to spend some time getting uncomfortably close to James, in his head, seeing the world from his perspective, as ugly as that might get. Josh Mond has given us a challenging and often unsympathetic figure in James White, a version of himself written as part of the director’s exploration of his own mother’s death from cancer three years prior.
Cynthia Nixon, a real-life cancer survivor, plays James’ mother, Gail and does so with a fearlessness. She spent time with Mond learning about his mother and incorporated parts of her as well as Nixon’s mother to create a character that feels like the real mother of James White, as complicated and flawed as him, facing down the regrets she hopes he avoids. These two characters are so broken, and because they have passed through the fire of life’s hardships together, abandoned by a husband and father, they are united in a way no one around them can truly fathom.
James doesn’t process challenges well; his mother later laments she believes it’s because they never talked about his dad. When things get complicated or emotionally cumbersome, James imbibes alcohol and uses sex with strangers as a way to dull his emptiness. This self-destructive pattern of behavior has kept him from going further in his writing career, a talent we are told he has in droves but lacks the discipline to hold down the jobs. James White is a person we’ve all met, the young adult with great potential in industry or art, but who can’t seem to move past trauma to become a realized person.
There’s a moment in the third act of the film, Gail is running a fever and her chances of making it through the night are poor. James cradles her in the same way she likely held him as a child. He starts weaving a story of a future that will never be: Gail moving to Paris and marrying an expat she meets there, James gets married and has two kids, they live next door, they celebrate the victories of life together. Gail eventually tells James she doesn’t want to move, she wants to stay here, and we know it’s not about leaving the bathroom, but she wants to find a way to remain in the beautiful dream James has given her.
In some ways, the film’s conclusion is final and tied up, but from an emotional point of view, there is much ambiguity. It’s no spoiler to say Gail eventually succumbs to cancer and we have a poignant bookending of the picture. The start of the film had Gail hosting a Chivas in her home for her estranged husband, and we end with a wake for Gail. James is in the lead position now, not his mother. He seeks to leave the apartment, overwhelmed with his world collapsing once again. The background becomes unfocused, morphing into a smudge of city lights cast across the void of night. James is right there in our face again, tight unflinching close-up. We don’t know where he goes from here or if he will be okay, but he doesn’t either.