Take a Drink: when James does things that would probably get you arrested.
Take a Drink: for each new appearance of the Verb shirt.
Take a Drink: for each appearance of a new intoxicant.
Do a Shot: for the balls it takes to ask a potential employer to charge your phone during an interview.
Finish Your Drink: when the fever breaks.
By: Sarah Shachat (A Toast) –
One of the smarter things I’ve learned about film, that I can’t take credit for figuring out myself, is the difference between ambiguity and ambivalence. The one is uncertainty over how you should feel about what’s going on. The action or emotion is clear, but you don’t quite know how to take it. Not being sure is a dangerous proposition in film, too. The medium is about control – guiding a viewer’s attention, getting every single person sitting together in the dark to have a very specific, very personal reaction. Too often, ambiguity is the wibbly excuse of a filmmaker not exercising proper control over his frame, and ambivalence the crutch of a filmmaker who never quite figured out what she wanted to say.
James White, however, is a very specific film. It is a very personal film. And it uses both ambiguity and ambivalence to pressure-mold its portrait of a directionless asshole who’s forced by circumstance into caring for his dying mother. Yep. That’s actually what it’s about. The wonder of the film is that it’s as effecting as it is.
Much of what we feel and think about James comes through the cinematography. It is not quite a Cloverfield-type ride, nor quite as jittery as Paul Greengrass’s intensified continuity. But it’s an empathetic camera, always reacting to James’s internal state. Since our hero is an unemployed, unhappy writer-type first seen emerging from a club at like nine in the morning to belatedly sit shiva for his estranged father, it means the cinematography’s both fluid and close. The camera is tight on James’ face a lot of the time, tracking in front of him or close on his side, moving with him like a shadow, or a wave of stress. It contributes to a vaguely claustrophobic atmosphere as James’ mom gets sicker and sicker, as James makes poor decision after poor decision, as the stakes get higher.
It’s this wordless communication of emotion through editing and camerawork that makes James White‘s storytelling feel so intuitive. There are times – like an acid trip in Mexico – where we aren’t quite sure what’s going on, and there are times – like James’ breakdown in a hotel room just before a big job interview – where we aren’t quite sure why our man’s doing what he’s doing. Director Josh Mond gives us room to judge James and be frustrated with him, or, in the parlance of our age, just not even. But we never lose our connection to him, because it’s there on the screen. There’s a fearsome quality to how boldly the style here reflects and supports the narrative, giving it a sort of vacuum-seal quality. The moment you’re in the film, you’re stuck there. That kind of storytelling clarity is exhilarating, and makes James White well worth the price of admission.
But none of it would hold together if the actors weren’t absolutely amazing, able to hold and indeed demand the level of focus that the camera gives them. Spoilers: they are that good. Christopher Abbott does not make James “likeable” or “relatable.” That’s not the point of him. What Abbott is able to do is articulate an inarticulate and utterly overwhelmed person, who isn’t ready for anything the film throws at him. There is no one act that makes James ready, no transformative experience or manic pixie dream girl – though he makes clumsy passes at both – that prepares him for navigating hospital bureaucracy or carrying his mom to the toilet.
The other half of the equation is James’s mom, Gail, played with heartbreaking wit and frankness by Cynthia Nixon. What’s so remarkable is how strongly her character comes across both in performance and structure. Her death is not a catalyst to make James a better person. The film doesn’t treat it that way. There’s no narrative ease, or surety, to what it ultimately means. Mond doesn’t give us any overt guidance on what to conclude about James’ life after the death, or how to feel about him as a person for the way he went through it. How James White treats the conflict that eats up the second half of its runtime is, therefore, refreshingly immediate and frank. It begins, ends, and is ultimately about how dealing with things as they come, not the context or meaning we’d like from them.
A compelling character study and cathartic in its execution, James White tells the story it wants to tell exactly the way it should be told. It even has a sense of humor, and a Ron Livingston. The film’s a very specific experience and probably not a good call for every occasion, but its marriage of form and narrative is as thrilling as its nuanced performances.