James White

A twentysomething screw-up tries to grow up in the indie-film find of the year

Cynthia Nixon and Christopher Abbott in 'James White.' Credit: The Film Arcade / courtesy Everett Collection

Some movies are so good and true and tough-to-the-core they should just sneak up on you. James White is one of them. I can tell you a few things: That Christopher Abbott is dynamite as the title character, a twentysomething Manhattan slacker with aspirations to be a journalist. Parties, booze, drugs, sex and his volatile temper get in the way.

And so, James thinks, does his mother Gail (Cynthia Nixon), also a writer and also dealing with the death of her ex-husband who is James' father. Gail is fighting a losing battle with cancer. So James interrupts a trip to Mexico and a fling with Jayne (a very fine Mackenzie Leigh), a high schooler of striking maturity, to get his ass back home and be a caretaker. He doesn't know how.

His friend Nick, sharply played by Scott  "Kid Cudi" Mescudi —t he rapper and music producer who composed the film’s vital score — calls James on his bullshit.  But the love he feels for his mother is real and bruising. Nixon, in one of the year's best and most powerful performances, digs so deep into her character that you can feel her nerve endings. And one scene, in a bathroom, with James holding her her ravaged body and fashioning a story of the life together they'll never have, is quietly devastating.

That James White is filled with scenes that hit like a shot in the heart is due to the film’s writer-director Josh Mond. One of the founding members of Borderline Films, the indie-film company he runs with partners Antonio Campos (Afterschool) and Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene), Mond emerges as a filmmaker of potent talent and passionate feeling. James White takes a piece out of you.