James White, currently streaming on Netflix, announces its focus right away, in its title. Probably, prospective audiences might rightfully imagine, this will be a film about a guy called “James White”. There’s something vaguely old-fashioned about it, Victorian. Not even “The Sorrows of James White” or “The Continuing Adventures of James White.” Just a name.
It’s appropriate. The film is the directorial debut of Josh Mond, who previously produced, among other things, 2011’s spectacular Martha Marcy May Marlene – a very different film but another one with a title composed of names, interestingly enough. The latter focused on group dynamics in a cult; here, Mond is similarly interested in small moments of interaction and solitary questioning. It’s about how a monumentally self-absorbed guy grapples with duty and sudden responsibility. Let it be said up-front: James White can be a bit of an asshole, and James White can be a tough ride.
The payoff, however, is enormous. Mond and his DP Mátyás Erdély (who shot the incredible Son of Saul last year, too) zoom in uncomfortably close to the titular lead character. Literally and figuratively: played, in a tour de force, by Girls’ Christopher Abbott, and loosely based on Mond himself, James White the character is front and center, trying and failing to cloak inner turmoil. Even on a beach in Mexico, chatting up Jayne (Makenzie Leigh), who’s way too young for him. Even carousing with Nick (Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi), a close family friend who’s willing to fight alongside him in a bar but maybe the only person around who calls him on his bullshit.
We meet James in a club, sweating, drinking, dancing. He seems one false step away from a stroke, but we don’t know why. He exits, and it’s morning. A cab across town takes him to an apartment. Inside, people are grieving. His dad, who he never much knew, has died. His mother, who raised him and who he who loves fiercely, has been grappling with cancer. And still: James spent the night getting desperately fucked up, hitting on women, generally looking like someone searching for an exit door. It’s hard to hate him for it. He’s got a lot going on.
Abbott plays him as an aimless but mostly well-intentioned young man, prone to dramatic mistakes, arrogance, and self-pity, but also one who wants to do right. In scene after scene, Erdély’s camera stays tight to his face, registering each small moment of pain, denial, sweetness, anger, and hope.
As his mother, Cynthia Nixon delivers an impressive performance herself. She seems to shrink in physical stature as her illness grows, but also projects a kind of fierceness in the face of the inevitable. The relationship between the two of them is palpably rendered, occasionally uncomfortable, and true. By the time James tries to comfort her with stories clearly drawing on lessons she herself taught him, Mond has structured something devastating.
This is tough stuff, but it’s honest. James’ imperfections alone redeem what might have been a miserabilist slog, or yet another story of an overgrown man-child learning how to live. The film has more on its mind than that, and while it might not sound like a terrific time, there’s something to admire in every scene.
(1) Spotlight, last year’s Best Picture winner, is also now available for streaming. If you haven’t seen it, now’s the time. Don’t listen to anyone who refers to the film as visually staid or too by-the-numbers: it’s quietly heartbreaking and entirely accomplished, boasting a great script and solid performances, with a cinematographic palette and design entirely appropriate to its subject. It’s also the best Best Picture winner in nine years.
(2) With his gleeful absurdity and deep love of silent film, Guy Maddin is, generally speaking, a bit of an acquired taste. So why not acquire it? The Forbidden Room lacks the personal touch of his masterpiece My Winnipeg, or the bonkers narrative of his other masterpiece Brand Upon The Brain!, or the concision of his other masterpiece The Heart Of The World, but it’s (you guessed it) a masterpiece. His most film if not his best film, it’s required viewing for any aspiring Maddin-phile.
(3) 2001: A Space Odyssey changed cinema in profound ways, and Kubrick’s classic is about to vanish from Netflix streaming. See it now, before it speeds off into a world made of stars.
(4) Advantageous was one of the best sci-fi movies in recent years, a feminist take on neo-realist dystopia that breathed new life into an increasingly moribund genre. Director Jennifer Phang and star Jacqueline Kim play with heady themes and still tell an engaging story. If you like Blade Runner and Margaret Atwood, here’s a movie you should see as soon as possible.