(Photo courtesy of the Chicago International Film Festival)

51st Chicago International Film Festival U.S. Indies special presentation


Much of the resisted maturation journey playing out for the title character in Josh Mond's "James White" feels petulant and half-hearted, much like the character himself.  We learn that effort is by design because he is a character that needs fixing.  The only way James White can mature is through bottoming out and finding emotion in places other than himself.  "James White" is a difficult and unflinching look at both terminal illness and wasting one's life on selfish excesses. 

Far more affecting under similar circumstances than last year's Robert Downey, Jr. glamour piece, "The Judge," this film is strips away the glamour and false sense of dignity to force a man to accept and aid in watching a family member succumb to cancer.  Played by the little-known Christopher Abbott ("Martha Marcy May Marlene"), James White is the selfish screw-up son of his less-than-proud family of New York white privilege.  

The film opens with a nearly five-minute close-up take of him getting hammered at a nightclub.  Slowly, the music shifts away from the raving club mix and the camera backs away to follow him out of the club.  Instead of continuing the bender, James exits and arrives to what we find to be his family and friends sitting Shiva for his newly deceased father.  At once, with the first conversation and introduction of his disapproving mother Gale White (Cynthia Nixon), we immediately now know what's weighing on James's mind.  

As the film continues marking the calendar months that follow, we begin to see the roots of James's self-destructive mess of a lifestyle.  He has no career direction, blows job interviews with family friends (Ron Livingston), and is embroiled in alcohol, drugs, questionable friendships, and dead-end relationships.  When James learns that Gale's cancer has spread and become worse, his selfish tailspin continues with a frivolous vacation to clear his head and get laid.  We see a man that is not capable of caring for anyone but himself.  Eventually, Gale's care falls on him and James has to muster the strength to do the right thing.

This all may sound terrifically depressing and difficult, but there is a unmistakably powerful respect to be found in "James White" and its ambition to tell a hard story.  Without spoiling the denouement, first-time feature director Josh Mond writes a scene for the ages between Abbot and Nixon that will win over the faintest of hearts.  At the point of exhaustion for both characters (and likely us in the audience), James breaks into a calming speech of creative optimism to help assuage Gale.  The scene blooms to shatter us to pieces.   Billie Holiday music breaks the background silence and we watch his character shift right before our eyes.  For a powerful moment, the bleakness fades away and the film ascends to an unexpected place.  It cleans up a narrative that, until that point, made every effort to help us push the main character away in disgust.  We recognize the visceral acting of Abbot and Nixon and are 

LESSON #1: THE DEBILITATING COURSE OF CANCER-- Most Hollywood films do their best to keep the unhealthy effects of terminal cancer lightly addressed off-screen.  Films like that create these dying future angels that we baptize with our sympathy.  "James White" doesn't do that.  It is raw and rough with realism and evasive dignity.  It skips graciousness and resides in the unpretty.

LESSON #2: STEERING YOUR OWN SELF-DESTRUCTION-- James is quick to find trigger and excuses for his vices and behavior.  The truth is he is the author of his own hardship.  His choices are what steer his own self-destruction.  No one is pushing James, only himself, and he's not dealing with that well.  He has the power to make it worse or do something about it.

LESSON #3: LEARNING TO CARE ABOUT SOMEONE OTHER THAN YOURSELF-- Initially, not a thread of James is well-meaning.  James thinks with only his own convenience and comfort in mind, even in the midst of his father's passing and his mother's right around the corner.It takes a tragic experience to make him see value in life and relationships.  That scenario stands right in front of James's face.  It's his move to act and react.