He's a fuck-up, but he's here now, mopping the sweat off his mother's forehead, carrying her frail body to the bathroom — "like a princess," he jokes — doing everything he can to make it through the night with her. She's deep into Stage IV cancer, and he's finally giving a hard look to that 24-hour hospice number taped to the refrigerator. There will be time later to think about whether he did the best he could for her, but for now he can only pray the morning comes soon.
It's a scene that comes right in the middle of James White, an indie drama about a wayward son finally dealing with maturity, responsibility and mortality, and one almost directly lifted from the life of its New York-based writer-director Josh Mond. "There were a lot of emotions I didn't understand at the time," the 32-year-old filmmaker says, regarding his own long, dark nights during his terminally ill mother's worst moments. "I didn't know how to process them, from shame to guilt to sadness to anger to fear." Mond remembers taking a call from his sister, who was living in Los Angeles at the time: "She said, 'You may think this is the worst thing that could ever happen. But you're so lucky you got to spend that time with her and share [this] with her, because it's a really beautiful thing.'"
Mond's experience in dealing with a dying parent is not uncommon; what is rare is to see such moments so keenly and honestly articulated on screen. In James White, end-of-life care is a punishing ordeal that mother and son go through together, with physical and emotional trials, but also great tenderness, humor, and grace. "What makes you connect most to a movie," the director says, "are the things that we feel uncomfortable sharing."
Yet Mond and his lead actor, Christopher Abbott (Girls), weren't interested in currying favor with the audience by making the eponymous twentysomething more "likable." James is an asshole much of the time. He loves his mother (Cynthia Nixon), but his caregiving has been less consistent than the nights he's crashed on her couch. At worst, he's an ugly picture of upper-middle-class entitlement, forever dodging responsibility by sinking further into booze and hedonism, and testing the patience of those closest to him, like his childhood friend Nick (Scott "Kid Cudi" Mescudi). News of his mother's relapse, coming soon after the death of his father (who had remarried), isn't the pot of coffee that wakes him up and spurs him to maturity. Every day seems to trigger a flight-or-fight response.
"His flaws make him more relatable," says Abbott. "He's not a protagonist who's unreachable, who's not such a hero and always winning. Because it's often only in movies that people are like that. People are flawed, but it's the striving to get better that can make them beautiful."
The unvarnished intensity of James White — which stays so tight on Abbott that the camera often seems rigged to his nose — brings it in line with other work from the Borderline Films collective, which Mond formed with his Tisch film-school buddies Antonio Campos and Sean Durkin. He served as producer on Campos' Afterschool (2009) and Simon Killer (2012), and on Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene (2012); his friends were a guiding presence throughout the making of the film. And though the trio has expressed a common interest in directors like Michael Haneke — whose Oscar-nominated film Amour this film superficially resembles — Mond insists they don't have a manifesto.
"We're all interested in learning the complications of humans," he says. "All of our films in one way or another deal with death. Every single one. Which is strange. We never sit down and talk about it. We should probably go to therapy."
Though James White shares the rigor and single-character focus of other Borderline films, it's also more emotionally open and accessible. Making the film may have been Mond's way to process past trauma — "it wasn't like I was going to sit down, without the movie, and think about what transpired" — but the audience doesn't experience it from a distance. They're thrust into the most painful, vulnerable scenes of a mother and son's lives and feel the full weight of it.
Which raises the obvious question: What's the value in putting viewers through the ringer?
"If you're someone who's gone through a similar experience," says Abbott, "maybe it could be cathartic. And who hasn't? By the time you turn 10 years old, you've probably experienced loss in some way. And yes, the feeling of losing a parent is immense compared to losing a pet fish when you're seven, but loss is loss and death is death. Hopefully [you] learn how to celebrate life until that happens and to not take things for granted."