Christopher Abbott Carries the Sublime, Dreamlike James White

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Photo: Sundance

This review originally ran on January 30, 2015. With James White going into limited release this weekend, we're repromoting it.

James White begins in a burst of abstraction, with Christopher Abbott’s face coming in and out of focus in extreme close-up, swaying slowly in the warm haze of a nightclub. The throbbing club music battles the gentle songs playing through the young man’s earbuds, blending into a sonic blur. Director Josh Mond’s frame starts off close, too close, then pulls back a bit, then jumps in again — as if trying to find the right distance. But once it settles, the handheld camera never loses its focus on Abbott. It remains fixed on him for the rest of the film, as if it has captured a prime specimen and isn’t about to let go. 

From that ethereal opening, James White follows its lead as he makes his way back to sit Shiva for his recently deceased, estranged father. He greets some well-wishers, including his dad’s second wife (whom he’s never met, it seems), and talks to his mom (Cynthia Nixon), who informs him that “it’s okay to be sad.” He then drifts back out to a pharmacy and then to a bar, and then to another club, and then to bed with a seemingly random girl, and then back to the Shiva. We’ve lost all sense of time and space. Mom, we learn, is herself recovering from cancer treatment. James doesn’t seem to have a place to call his own; he’s crashing on the couch. He has no life, or career; just some vague ambitions of becoming a writer. He’s a fuck-up — the kind of guy who can’t seem to walk into a bar without stupidly pissing someone off — but James White doesn’t dwell too much on James’s lost-ness. The world it presents seems at times so slippery and uncertain that being lost seems like the only natural response.

Instead, we get life spinning forward with all the aimless velocity of a dream. It’s December. James goes to Mexico, where his best friend Nick (Kid Cudi) has a job as a clown at a resort. He meets a girl (played by Makenzie Leigh). Next thing we know, she’s jerking him off in a shower, and they’re an item. They take a road trip, and then, as they’re walking affectionately down a busy Mexican street, he receives a call that mom’s cancer has returned. Within a split second, they’re bundled up back in a New York subway, and it’s January, and mom isn’t getting any better, and James still doesn’t seem to have a place, or a job, and then Mom wanders off aimlessly and she thinks it’s the year 2000 and then suddenly it’s February.

James White looks like a simple film on its surface. As noted, we remain tightly, almost exclusively, focused on Abbott, whose tense lips and watchful eyes often have to carry the drama. (The young Girls actor is asked to do a surreal amount of heavy lifting here; it’s a wonderful showcase for his range and talent.) But despite the vérité-influenced stylization, writer-director Mond (whose own struggle with loss likely inspired some of this story) doesn’t seem too interested in realism or grit. The film is regularly punctuated with shots of James waking up, often to find his world slightly different, as if each new day were a different layer in this unending dream.

The shifting reality of what we’re experiencing is betrayed by the ruthless march of time. Late in the film, holding his very sick mother very tightly, James describes to her a future world that will never exist, a trip that she will never take with him and his happy nonexistent family to Paris. She will show his kids the Louvre and the Rodin Garden, he tells her, gently. She will “see me happy … see me as a father … see me as a kind, loving man.” She will never see these things, but maybe, in the soft, vapory reverie of this sublime film, she already has.