“James White” is the anti-“Terms of Endearment.”
In Hollywood movies, death is often a beatific experience. In “James White,” the edgy indie drama from Josh Mond, it’s filled with night sweats, moments of incontinence, hallucinations, and a few moments of grace.
“I wanted it to be as real as possible,” said Mond.
The film premieres at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it hopes to secure distribution.
Mond’s cast agrees that he achieved verisimilitude in his depiction of the titular hedonistic young man (Christopher Abbott) nursing his cancer-stricken mother (Cynthia Nixon).
“My mom died of cancer and good friends of mine died of AIDS,” said Nixon. “I feel it’s kind of like when you have children and they’re growing up. Every kid is different, but you recognize the stages and this script did a good job of depicting the stages of dying.”
Mond said he and Nixon bonded after she nailed one of her first scenes when her character is losing her battle with the illness.
“I said how ‘did you know? How did you know?'” said Mond. “I didn’t realize how universal that was.”
The film also doesn’t shy away from the exacerbating elements of healthcare — be it standing in line at a pharmacy to fill a prescription or calling in chits in order to land a hospital bed.
“It was important not to have it be just about the emotional journey, but about the physical demands of taking care of someone,” said Abbott. “Because no matter how much you love somebody, doing these things sucks. It’s not fun. I wanted there to be some frustration.”
“It hard to keep in the forefront of your mind that this person is not going to be here in a week or a month,” said Nixon. “You know it intellectually, but it’s hard to have that moment.”
James is a swirl of contradictions, alternating between overseeing hospice care for his mother with partying and joblessness. He’s not likable, but Abbott said he wasn’t worried about alienating audiences.
“If anything I wanted to make it more unlikable,” said Abbott. “I wanted to subvert the expectation of what a lead character can be in a movie.”
Mond said he wanted to explore James White’s contradictory nature, noting, “It was important to see the ugliness and to see the potential.”
Of course, films that refuse to spoon feed audiences and provide them with standard emotional uplift can be dicey propositions financially. To get “James White” past the finish line and to secure music rights for the picture, Mond turned to Kickstarter to raise additional funds.
“I’m happy we did it, because it brought awareness to the film,” said Mond. “It’s another tool for filmmakers to not be bogged down and make choices because of financing. It allows you to continue to make the movie you want to make.”