When we first meet the titular James White (Christopher Abbott), he's lost in a haze of sweat, drugs, and booming club music. The camera is tightly focused so we can practically see every bead of perspiration, but also his dark and cloudy eyes as he dances recklessly. It's uncomfortable to be this close; it feels unnatural to be thrust so far into one person's skin like this, but director Josh Mond is merely offering this as a test, because the rest of the film will sink us even further into this deeply troubled, self-destructive young man's journey through a sea of pain and loss.
Although the months are rattled off like chapters in a play, it isn't long before we quickly lose a sense of how time flows for James. Frequently drunk or stoned, he seems to be in a perpetual fog as a means of escaping his harsh reality. He returns home, stinking of the night, only to arrive late for the shiva service for his late father, who abandoned him as a young man and remarried. "We're not even Jewish", he screams at his mother Gail (Cynthia Nixon) who tries to calm her son down with gentle words as if well-practiced in easing her son's tantrums. But he's not really having it, and before long James is back on the streets for more boozing, fighting, and fucking before crashing back home to disrupt Gail's life further.
Just as James' damaged cycle threatens to become repetitive, a trip to Mexico with best pal Nick (Scott "Kid Cudi" Mescudi, surprisingly good) to clear his head offers a glimmer of hope. It's there that he meets a girl, Jayne (Makenzie Leigh), who seems to have a fascination with him in the way one watches an exciting car wreck. But just when things are looking up, Gail's cancer returns and James must man-up, return home, put all of the irresponsible crap behind him and take care of her.
But can he do it? James White isn't what one would call a story of redemption. It's a rather hopeless look at what happens when an emotionally-crippled young man is given responsibility he's unprepared to handle. While he remains a volatile figure throughout, and remarkably unreliable even when he's needed, James is undeniably a momma's boy who does his best with the emotional tools at his disposal. "We feel everything up here", his mother says indicating the acute level to which they experience euphoria and grief. As her condition worsens, James seems increasingly lost and desperate, flailing out in anger and rage over how to take care of the mother he loves more than anything.
Penned by Mond and partially inspired by his own experiences, James White is at times so bleak and bracing that many will find it tough to endure. Given that Mond, along with producers Sean Durkin and Antonio Campos gave us dark-tinged thrillers like Martha Marcy May Marlene and Simon Killer, it should be expected it doesn't subscribe to Hollywood notions of atonement. James is always on the edge of a complete meltdown or total implosion, and portrayed by Abbott we feel every brutal moment of his pain. It's an incredibly powerful, heavy performance by Abbott, who I wasn't the biggest fan of during his time on HBO's Girls, but since he abruptly left the show he's been taking on increasingly challenging roles. The same goes for Nixon who has had a busy Sundance with an equally devastating role in Stockholm, Pennsylvania. While one could argue that James White goes into misery overload in the second half, the crippling honesty in Nixon and Abbott's performances reveal a deep humanity through all of the sadness.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5