James White full movie review - First time writer/director's portrait of sociopath son helping dying mother proves both compelling and somewhat underdeveloped
First-time writer-director Josh Mond has fashioned a cinema-verité style drama based on his own experiences of losing his mother to cancer.
During a recent Q&A, I learned that he bonded with noted actress Cynthia Nixon who plays the mother of the title character James White, and who also lost her own mother to cancer.
What I liked about Mond's protagonist James White, is that he's no sad sack?he's a character that basically likes himself despite tussling with a few demons deep down inside. One critic described James White as an "antisocial delinquent." Others might refer to him as a "Ne'er do well" but I think "sociopath" is a more appropriate moniker.
I've met a few people like James White in my life and I'm struck by their narcissism, aggressiveness and almost complete lack of a sense of moral responsibility or social conscience. Still, as we see in Mond's somewhat compelling portrait, James has an honorable side too, manifested in his devotion to his mother, who leans on him for support in her last dying days.
When we first meet James, his father (who left the family years ago), has just died and his mother is holding Shivah, the traditional Jewish mourning period, for the family of the father's second wife at her apartment. James appears disheveled after a night of carousing at a nightclub and inappropriately throws everyone out after taking offense at his non-relatives watching a video of his father's wedding to the second wife.
Soon afterward, to make matters worse, Nick, a friend of his, gets into a fight at a bar and James also joins in and almost provokes a complete free for all. James promises his mother Gail that he'll look for a job but he needs to take a break first, so he goes down to Mexico with Nick, who recently obtained a job as a clown at a resort.
You might wonder how a guy with no prospects like James can so easily find a girlfriend but he has no troubles picking up a woman who he meets down in Mexico, employing a series of glib and subtle pick-up lines. It's a sad commentary that women often are attracted to "bad boys," all the while ignoring the obvious signs that the guy they've become interested in, has little moral conscience.
At the midpoint, James suddenly gets a call from his mother that she's experienced a relapse with her cancer, which is now Stage 4. Dutifully, James returns back to New York City where he becomes more unhinged due to his mother's rapid decline and it appears that he's now taking some kind of drugs (he almost gets into another fight, this time with Nick, and accidentally cuts himself).
James is unable to fool Ben, a family friend, who interviews him for a job as a writer. James comes to the interview again disheveled and hands in his poetry, scribbled on loose leaf pages, as a writing sample. Ben tells James that he can come back and interview again, if and when he gets himself together. Nonetheless, James tells his mother that he got the job.
The rest of the film focuses on James' noble effort to assist and comfort his mother as she succumbs to the ravages of cancer. Despite James' unhealthy co-dependent relationship with his mother, his actions reflect a positive side that we haven't seen earlier. In this respect, we find that James attains a measure of redemption in the good deeds he performs for his mother. Mond's unflinching portrait of a cancer victim (as well as Nixon's startling performance) is quite commendable as there's no sugar coating of this terrible disease.
Christopher Abbott's performance is also quite convincing. Nonetheless, Mond's script feels truncated and the denouement, abrupt. I wanted to see what happens to James White?how he turns out. Despite the underdeveloped nature of Mond's story, he's a talent to watch and I'm convinced there are good things to come with future offerings.