Unyielding in its focus, James White burrows tightly into its title character’s fractured headspace, its camera pursuing a myopic visual style that at times recalls Philippe Grandrieux’s stifling macro compositions. Naming a film after a character promises a certain level of fixation on them, and an accordant degree of closeness that Josh Mond’s debut feature certainly provides. What’s unexpected is the coarse intensity of this potentially familiar character study, the complete sincerity accorded to James White’s (Christopher Abbott) pained parade of self-destruction, and the open-ended nature of the film’s interrogation. The portrait that emerges is refreshingly frank and tactile, less a calculating introduction to one unstable youth than an intensely pitched mystery over what kind of person he’ll ultimately become.
The two options offered to James, of mellowing into a functioning adult or continuing on as a reckless, antisocial delinquent, are echoed structurally by the film, which dramatizes this duality through a series of discordantly staged scenarios. The first occurs in the seething, violet-hued club in which the story opens, with the soundtrack toggling between the harsh Danny Brown track blasting from the over-driven sound system and the sweet sounds of Ray Charles pouring from James’s earbuds. He chats up a girl at the bar, coerces her into a bathroom tryst, then impulsively bails, tumbling out the backdoor to a startling burst of morning sunlight. Jumping into a cab, he heads home, where he’s confronted with an apartment packed with people sitting Shiva for his father, whose death he’ll never have time to appropriately process.
In this bravura, nearly wordless opening, Mond pummels us with contrasting audio-visual signals, paving the way for the piecemeal depiction of an incomplete character torn between extremes of sweetness and misanthropy. Alternating between patiently observed, carefully blocked long shots and jagged shaky-cam incoherence, the film swings through a wide range of emotional registers, maintaining an insistent baseline of empathy throughout.
The death of James’s father seems to be positioned as the impetus for the twentysomething to finally move off his mother’s couch and pick up the mantle of maturity. Yet this apparently direct passage toward symbolic adulthood is complicated by a variety of factors, namely that his father had already moved on and started another family, and that he’s already spent years caring for his cancer-stricken mother, Gail (Cynthia Nixon).
This maternal relationship is equally complex, with Gail both yearning for him to leave the nest and genuinely needing his assistance, further muddying the familial dynamic. Just as James makes his first entreaty toward independence (admittedly one that involves squandered inheritance money, LSD trips, and wooing teenage girls on a Mexican beach), he gets more bad news regarding his mother’s health. This forces him back into the dual role of child and protector, with the accompanying realization that, as an orphan, he’ll end up as an independent adult whether he likes it or not.
Despite its shambolic sense of momentum, James White maps these conflicts with serious care and attention, offering a battery of subtle, body-focused visual motifs that steer the film beneath its veneer of surface chaos. There’s a scene midway through where James seemingly shadowboxes with the camera, until a sudden reversal reveals that he’s been sparring with his likeness in the window. Picking a fight with his friends, he storms off into the bathroom, still wired with desperate energy. There’s a shattering sound, and he emerges with a gash on his hand, the source of which is never directly revealed, aside from a smear of blood on the glass shower door glimpsed later on. The moment passes quickly, leaving only the suggestion that he’s punched his own reflection in the mirror, just another salvo in his ongoing war with himself.
James White provides a pitch-black spin on the “overgrown man-child” genre, bolstered by gripping performances from Abbott and Nixon. What results is a coming-of-age story where few warm feelings are exchanged and no clear-cut lessons are learned. The overripe adolescent is forcefully wrenched out of childhood, emerging broken and incomplete. Befitting the film’s fractured visual and narrative sensibilities, the apprehension attached to this passage is rooted both in the forced fulfillment of traditional roles and the general hardships of adult life, issues that are urged into toxic symbiosis. Desperate to escape the weight of his responsibilities, James struggles to break free of his body through self-annihilation, only gaining in fury and power as his mother simultaneously wastes away. A flawed, furious first effort, the film confronts the hard realities of a world in which few make it to maturity without their share of scars, and no one makes it out of adulthood alive.