The sudden loss of one parent and the looming death of another set the stage for “James White,” a stripped-bare family drama that marks the feature directing debut of indie producer Josh Mond. Familiar in its general trajectory, but unusually raw and ragged in its emotional architecture, Mond’s fraught portrait of a mother and son in crisis sports a pair of knockout performances by Cynthia Nixon and “Girls” alumnus Christopher Abbott, and a vivid feel for wayward New York youths cocooned by upper-middle-class privilege, but little in the way of redemptive creature comforts. Audiences seeking spiritual uplift are strongly advised to look elsewhere.
Mond, who previously directed several short films, is best known as the longtime producing partner of directors Antonio Campos (“Afterschool”) and Sean Durkin (“Martha Marcy May Marlene”), whose New York-based Borderline Films collective has carved out a certain niche of dark, provocative psychological dramas strongly influenced by the work of Austria’s Michael Haneke. By that standard, “James White” could loosely be considered Mond’s “Amour,” albeit seen through the eyes of a child rather than a spouse — one who can barely hold his own in the adult world, let alone take care of someone else.
As played by the heavy-set, heavy-lidded Abbott, the eponymous James is a twentysomething Manhattan slacker who seems to harbor few ambitions in life beyond getting high, partying until dawn, and exploding at those who would dare to alter his course. In a hypnotically staged opening scene, Mond and cinematographer Matyas Erdely’s widescreen camera tracks James as he moves through the pulsating light of an after-hours bar, the thudding bass lines of electronic dance music competing with the vintage soul (Ray Charles’ “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying”) playing in his earphones, until he finally stumbles out into the early-morning daylight and makes his way home.
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What he finds waiting for him is the shiva service for his late father, a distant figure in his life who divorced James’ mother, Gail (Nixon), years earlier and had recently remarried. The combustible James is obviously ill-at-ease in these solemn environs, and the way Abbott plays the part, you can feel his blood pressure rising and the walls closing in around him. At the earliest opportunity, he’s back on the streets, in the company of childhood friend Nick (very well played by rapper and music producer Scott Mescudi, who also composed the film’s original score) — nights of bar brawls, copious drug and alcohol consumption and random sexual hookups, followed by days sleeping off the damage on Mom’s couch.
This has long been the status quo when “James White” begins, at least ever since James moved back home to take care of the cancer-stricken Gail. There is some talk of writerly ambition in his past, and an offer from a close family friend (an excellent Ron Livingston) to interview for a job at New York magazine. But in James’ inverted priority pyramid, a beach vacation in Mexico beckons, where he parties hard and meets a girl (“Gotham’s” Makenzie Leigh) who is drawn to him in the way one feels empathy for a three-legged dog. And that is when, after a period of remission, Gail’s cancer returns with a vengeance, and James returns to make one more fitful stab at growing up.
Surely, there is a version of “James White” — less honest, but more palatable to a mass audience — that would proceed in that general direction, a redemption narrative contrasting James’ gradual rehabilitation with Gail’s steepening decline until the two characters meet somewhere in the middle and all is forgiven. But Mond’s film is tougher than that, unwilling to let its characters so easily off the hook. James is, to put it mildly, a disastrous caretaker, who’s rarely around when he’s needed and, when he does show up, seems overwhelmed by the tasks at hand.
There wouldn’t be much reason for us to care about what happens to the character at all were it not for the fugitive soulfulness that flickers in his eyes like a light at the end of some cavernous tunnel. Abbott, who played small parts in “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and “A Most Violent Year,” has the kind of volatile, unpredictable energy of the actors in a John Cassavetes film, and he gives James a tortured humanity, a sense of profound inner struggle.
Nixon, who’s been cast as a Stage 4 cancer patient before (in Broadway’s “Wit”), plays the dying woman with a constantly shifting imbalance of fortitude, terror and humiliation at the betrayals of her own body and, above all, with a mother’s unfailing tenderness. It is through her eyes, ultimately, that we come to see the good in James, and a glimpse of the man he might someday become.
As director, Mond favors a less formalist approach than the films he’s produced, shooting mostly with a handheld camera and alternating short, sharp, sketched-in scenes with long, uncomfortably distended ones — chiefly, an epic hotel-room bender that pushes the characters (and the audience) to the brink of emotional collapse. It’s a most assured piece of work by an artist who understands that sometimes we rage against the dying of the light, and sometimes we just rage.