James White, one of two buzzed about films at the 51st Annual Chicago International Film Festival dealing with a protagonist in the throes of addiction (I Smile Back being the other), stars Christopher Abbott, of Girls fame, as the titular character. He’s a New York twenty-something coping both with the recent loss of his father – whom he wasn’t close to – and with his mother’s battle with cancer. His mother (Cynthia Nixon) seems to be the only person he truly cares for, and throughout the film, he’ll mostly be there for her no matter how dreary eyed he is from the night before. It’s an honest film, and one that treats its characters with respect no matter the choices they make.
James self-medicates as a means to escape feelings he can’t confront, trading a more conventional grieving process for bar stools and a Mexican vacation. Writer/director Josh Mond, in his directorial debut (who has been a producer with Borderline Films), shoots James’ stupor in extreme close-up, the camera gliding along with him so that every crevice of pain can be felt subjectively through James’ eyes.
Mond spoke after the screening about the personal nature of the film; having lost his mother to cancer a couple years ago. “Making the film allowed me to explore some pretty painful stuff,” Mond said in the film’s press notes. “To paraphrase the playwright John Guare ‘going into your imagination makes self-reflection bearable.’ It wasn’t easy to engage in that reflection, though.”
In many ways, the film is quite difficult. And it still manages to diverge away from “disease porn” cliché; Abbott’s acting reads grounded and authentic. He has an every-man quality that keeps the film from diverging into the overly-melodramatic. Abbott also portrays the moments of vulnerability just as well as the moments where his character can’t help but open his emotional floodgates, and the supporting cast of Nixon as his mother, and Kid Cudi as his best friend/semi-enabler, all do a superb job of backing a story that truly is about the bond between mother and son, no matter how dire or bleak the circumstances.
James White opens Nov. 13 in limited release.