“It’s okay to be sad”
It begins and ends with a face of pain—the titular James White‘s (Christopher Abbott). We see that something is eating away at him, trapping him inside himself so imbibing drugs, alcohol, and sex is his only reprieve. We also know he’ll eventually recover even before family friend Ben (Ron Livingston) says so aloud. James isn’t okay now and won’t be by the conclusion of Josh Mond‘s semi-autobiographical work, but he’ll at least be in a better position to begin the healing process. It’s ultimately something he’ll need to cope with alone, away from memories of the past or promises of the here and now. His world is literally shattering before our eyes with utter destruction proving a much easier prospect to endure than wading through the unknown.
There’s no escaping the initial sorrow and unbridled torment causing him to shake with anxiety as Mátyás Erdély‘s in-close camera highlights the sweat on his brow and vibrations of excess keeping him from his mother’s (Cynthia Nixon‘s Gail) side in grief. James’ father—Gail’s ex-husband—has passed away and everyone has arrived at her house for the memorial. And by everyone I mean the family of the deceased’s new wife neither James nor Gail knew existed. So he has for all intents and purposes left her gasping for air in a sea of sadness and confusion, numbing his own pain elsewhere. We can’t even be one hundred percent mad either considering this death comes at the completion of Gail’s cancer treatment. One tragedy traded for another.
James’ pent-up aggression needs an outlet and one enters the equation with the welcoming home of best friend Nick (Scott Mescudi) from his new life in Mexico. They exit the awkwardness of his father’s vigil for a couple drinks—the two picking up like they’ve never been apart once tensions rise and bar brawls commence. They are brothers who have each other’s back in good times or bad whether that means throwing a punch at a stranger or tackling a friend too messed up to realize what’s happening. Let’s just say James is beyond this point already so the discovery that Gail’s cancer has returned forces his head completely under the water. No form of help from Nick, Ben, or new girlfriend Jayne (Makenzie Leigh) will save him.
All his energy is needed for Gail and her comfort meaning everything else turns volatile and self-destructive to make up the difference. Life becomes James’ outlet for the hurt inside him that he’s pushing aside to put on as brave a face as possible for the occasionally delirious mother counting on him to love her when there’s no one left. Life and personal health/stability are rendered moot and replaced by tightly wound exchanges of impaired thinking that risk explosion with the lightest of touches until morning returns him to his mother. With death closing in, James starts to look as though his own might come first—and welcomingly so. The only way to feel is to bleed because the emotional turmoil is still too raw to acknowledge.
Mond has captured a devastating portrait of unceasing pain with James White, one you’d assume had a personal connection even without knowing his own mother died of the disease. Discovering Abbott is a close friend, that Nixon (a high-profile cancer-survivor) called him after reading the script because her mother also succumbed to the illness, and how much of his writing process was set to Kid Cudi‘s music (Mescudi also scores the film) makes the whole endeavor kismet. These real feelings spilling out are not only cathartic for the artists or crucial to the film’s success, they also provide the audience an entrance to recognize our own grief in theirs. You don’t need to be out of control like James to know exactly what he’s experiencing.
It’s an amazingly poignant central performance because we see the love Abbott’s White has for his mother every step of the way. Even in moments of abject horror when we’re wondering if he’ll end up in jail or worse, we know why he’s lashing out and why he hurts. To see his smile in Mexico with Jayne—possibly the first authentic smile seen at the half-way mark—dissolve into stoic determination with the phone call announcing cancer’s return is to see a man lost with only pain to point home. As for the climactic one-take scene of him waking to the shattering of Gail’s water glass before beginning an uninterrupted journey to the bathroom and into the imaginative fantasy of a bright future together? Tears are unavoidable.
Nixon’s Gail is pretty much a mirror of that same empty abyss of anger and fear but with nowhere to go. Her escape exists in short stints without memory stuck in the past and wandering the streets without a clue as to a destination. The only familiar thing she has is James’ face by her side and he provides it without a second thought. He might not always be there on time or intact, but who is in this situation? Yes he is selfish at times and perpetually dangerous, but she is everything to him. He wallows in self-pity and distracts himself with whomever has a willingness to comply—Jayne or not—so he can do it all again tomorrow. James fights for his mom without stop.
The realization he can’t yet own is Gail’s death leaving him without excuses. He hasn’t lived his own life or found what it is he wants whether a writing career or not. It makes us wonder to what degree his chaotic existence is in response to a prospective future with himself rather than one without her. James puts on a brave face and deludes himself into believing everything is okay despite knowing he needs a hard reset. The hurt has become who he is and it’s escalated from earning sympathy to conjuring fear in those closest to him. Life may never get harder than it is right now for James, but what if it does? What if this is just the beginning? Nothing is scarier than finding out.
 (L-R) Cynthia Nixon (Gail White) and Christopher Abbott (James White) in Josh Mond’s JAMES WHITE.
 (L-R) Christopher Abbott and Scott Mescudi in Josh Mond’s JAMES WHITE.
 (L-R) Makenzie Leigh and Christopher Abbott in Josh Mond’s JAMES WHITE.