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Josh Mond’s distinctive directorial debut is more than the typical Sundance fare. 

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James White is so considered, nuanced and affecting a character study that it reveals an authentic and multifaceted protagonist who challenges our empathy with every scene – if you can bear him. 

This debut feature from writer-director Josh Mond (producer of Simon Killer and Martha Marcy May Marlene) is ostensibly a familiar story – a privileged twenty-something Manhattanite struggles to cope with familial loss through a hedonistic self-absorption that is manifested through drinking, drugs, fights and empty sexual encounters.

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It is Christopher Abbott and Cynthia Nixon’s performances, though, that elevate James White beyond that of the self-conscious Simon Killer – or indeed much of the usual Sundance fare. Mond’s direction furthers the disassociation from typical American indie tropes, and his use of intimate close-ups, measured dialogue and subtleties in tone make his directorial debut truly distinctive.

Mond presents a conflict in James from the opening scene – he is drunk, likely high and in a nightclub stumbling, swaying and listening to jazz through headphones. This is punctuated by hip-hop blaring from the speakers, waking James from his reverie, pulling him closer towards consciousness and forcing the realisation that he needs to face whatever he is trying to escape. He drinks up and walks out into the sunlit streets of New York City. He takes a taxi straight to his father’s shiva.

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James’ guilt is immediately palpable, but seeing his mother’s discomfort as her ex-husband’s wife and family join her in mourning, he takes control and escorts the mass of unknown relatives out of the house. The dichotomy between two sides of James’ personality is what he has to reconcile – his mother highlights the need for balance at a crucial point in James’ life:

The thing about us is…we feel good things way up here. But we feel bad things way, way, way down there. And we got to remember there is all this space in between. We gotta try and live in there, too.”

His self-destruction is preventing him from taking responsibility and caring for his mother, who has a serious illness. Nixon’s portrayal of Gail White’s physical and mental deterioration is both deeply moving and difficult to watch. Her fragility, in contrast with Abbot’s intense and brooding physicality, is a marker of uncertainty – will James take control of his life or continue in his narcissistic self-destruction? Those who have gone through similar experiences might not want to find out, but as Abbot’s performance often negates our empathy, we too are left conflicted and uncertain.

James White premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and was given the Sundance Next Audience Award. It is released in the UK on DVD by Soda Pictures on 29th February 2016.

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Posted on Mar 2, 2016

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