How wonderful it is to watch a film that pays attention to life’s finer textures. The setting is PalaVideo, a vertiginous cinema at the back of Locarno’s train station, and the time is midday. The air conditioning is desperately insufficient and folks wave fans in front of their faces, a gesture that turns the fixed safety lights that adorn the walls on either side of the auditorium into gentle flashes in one’s periphery. The perspiration, the darkness, the unsynchronized hand movements: If it isn’t quite an erotic context to watch this packed public screening of James White, it’s certainly what we’d call a bodily experience.
Josh Mond’s debut feature is a refreshingly authentic and profitably low-key drama in which twentysomething New Yorker James White (Christopher Abbott) is coming to terms with the death of his father. Shortly before the death, James learned his dad had remarried following a divorce from his mother, Gail (Cynthia Nixon), and meets his stepmom at the wake being held in his mother’s apartment—to which he shows up after a boozy binge in an all-hours nightclub. The opening scene, in which James does little more than zone out to a sonic mosaic of electronic dance music before getting a cab across town in sobering daylight, is evocative of the kind of physical and even emotional states induced by prolonged intoxication in a bustlingly disorienting setting. Though it doesn’t shy away from dialogue (an increasing rarity across independent cinema in general and the festival circuit in particular), this is nevertheless going to be a film all about unspoken heartache.
James is unemployed. We learn Gail has recently survived cancer and her son was a major help in her fight against it. Listless and unable to confront his growing anxieties, he goes on vacation with his close pal, Nick (Scott Mescudi). It’s there that he meets Jayne (Mackenzie Leigh), a fellow New Yorker. But just as their romance is beginning to blossom, James receives a phone call from his mother saying her cancer has returned. Back in New York, he divides his time between Jayne, a job search, continued hedonism, and his increasingly dependent mother. This simple premise is executed with a deeply effective naturalism. Mond eschews a non-diegetic score at key moments, placing full trust in his performers.
When putting the dramatic groundwork in, Mond’s focus on the quotidian ensures that later scenes—in which Gail’s health declines and James must suffer the frustration and anguish that come with personally caring for a parent whose mental and physical capacities are abandoning her—carry a weight that doesn’t need to be milked. By means of characterization, Mond scripts scenes that court cliché only to resist it. One example occurs not long after James meets Jayne, in a cut to a tactfully framed shot of her masturbating him in the shower; whereas another director might have cut from a meet-cute to a predictable image of the pair in the throes of intercourse, Mond opts for a more unusual, intimate, and perhaps even more realistic shorthand.
Much of the film rests on Abbott’s performance as James, an otherwise likeable lad prone to understandable bouts of recklessness and destruction. Several scenes stand out: James deliberately repeating himself to a hospital staff member who barely flinches at initial news that Gail has shit herself; his choking on his own words when bursting with dormant rage-cum-fear during a physical confrontation with Nick; and his being knocked back by a potential employer (Ron Livingston), whose sensitivity and honesty as a family friend provides the film one of its many touching moments. Nixon is also excellent, lending her considerable experience to the proceedings without commandeering them. In another film, her role might have been engineered into an Oscar campaign.
Mond’s film enjoys a thematic connection in Locarno to fellow competition entry No Home Movie. In every other way, however, Chantal Akerman’s latest film is a world apart from James White. This diaristic documentary captures the filmmaker’s relationship with her late mother, who she filmed in her Brussels apartment over a number of years prior to her death. Akerman, who’s still best known for her 1975 domestic epic Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, couldn’t have foreseen the manner and rapidity with which her mother’s health declined, and so this film lacks the structural framework around and through which the earlier drama could be built. In fact, not a great deal happens in No Home Movie. For appreciably lengthy chunks of the film’s 115-minute running time, Akerman feels justified in merely shooting an empty frame of house furniture.
Akerman’s mother, like her father, was born in Poland, and moved to Belgium in 1938. Having herself emigrated to New York decades back, the director perhaps felt some kind of diasporic connection between her and her mother. Not that that’s explored in any kind of depth though. But for sequences in which we watch a passing landscape from a moving car, there’s little to hold everything together. The film feels very much like a montage of disparate home movies stitched together post hoc. While more diplomatic viewers will extend the benefit of doubt to Akerman’s audaciously personal work, this critic can’t get beyond byline bias. Though it’s apparently enough that someone of Akerman’s repute has asked us to watch a film all about her mother, if it were someone less celebrated, nobody would give a damn. Indeed, this is of no more inherent value—and certainly no more compelling—than Gipsofilia, a similarly diaristic film by Portugal’s Margarida Leitão that premiered at IndieLisboa earlier this year.
Anybody can make a film like No Home Movie, of course, but not everybody does. No serious qualms can be voiced about a project as palpably small as this (and who can begrudge a film an audience?), but its inclusion in the main competition at Locarno reveals the cynical ways in which film festivals of a certain standing operate. To put such an obviously minor work in competition says much about the selection criteria for these programs (cf. Taxi, Jafar Panahi’s Golden Bear winner at this year’s Berlinale). Whereas anyone new to Akerman’s oeuvre might be forgiven for dismissing her, on this evidence, as either a no-talent documentarian or a film-school student asked to make a graded project containing elements of autobiography, those in charge of Locarno Film Festival’s competition lineup have seemingly gone for reputation rather than merit.
If the festival needed to fulfill its quota of nonfiction films by female directors, a more radical option might have been to put Marianne Lambert’s I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman in competition, rather than hosting its world premiere in some redundant sidebar. Another fitting choice would have been Keeper, the debut feature by Brussels native Guillaume Senez. Like James White, this French-Belgian-Swiss co-production—which premieres in the festival’s competition for first- and second-time directors—also centers round a protagonist who has responsibilities thrust upon him: in this instance, teenager Maxime (Kacey Mottet Klein), whose girlfriend, Mélanie (Galatéa Bellugi), unexpectedly discovers that she’s pregnant. Though it’s slightly irksome that Senez insists upon following through this dramatic concept from an unflinchingly male perspective (when, in fact, it’s Mélanie who must suffer the full brunt of this mutually binding fate), Keeper is a winningly understated work that develops in unexpected ways.
Chief among the film’s strengths is how it underscores the unpredictable and contradictory ways in which parents respond to their children’s dilemmas. Maxime’s parents, divorced, are supportive of their son’s imminent fatherhood while maintaining their hopes that he makes it as a professional soccer player. Mélanie’s single mother, in contrast, more or less disowns her daughter, fully aware of the pressures teenage motherhood can bring. Senez makes it clear that whatever life awaits the child is going to be tough—but since his characters are fully rounded, they will, we infer, get by.
The Locarno Film Festival runs from August 5—15.