James White, which opens exclusively at the Cedar Lee on Friday, took home "Best of NEXT" honors at the Sundance Film Festival last year. Cleveland native Steven Caple Jr.'s local film The Land was recently selected to appear in this year's NEXT program at Sundance, a slate of films from up-and-coming filmmakers that purport to define the next wave of American cinema.
As a NEXT film par excellence, James White, written and directed by rookie Josh Mond, ought to represent something new and forward-thinking (avant-garde, even?) in filmmaking. Though it doesn't necessarily do that — the narrative trajectory of grief and growth is a familiar one — it's nonetheless a remarkable film, anchored by two powerful performances and strung together by a series of painfully on-target scenes that show an entitled twentysomething on the receiving end of a reality check.
James White (Girls alum Christopher Abbott) is a boozing, jobless New York millennial who's been sleeping on his mother's couch for four years. He's deluded himself into believing that picking up his mom's prescriptions from the local pharmacy constitutes full-time work. She's got Stage 4 cancer, after all, and the physical and emotional strain of "caring for her" has so overwhelmed young James that he treats himself to an extended vacation in Mexico, after which he says he intends to return to get his life together.
"I need a break," says James to his mom, (Sex and the City's Cynthia Nixon), in one of many scenes in which he's unable to see the preposterous nature of his life, even as it's explained to him.
"Honey, all you do is take breaks," she says.
No dice. But Mexico is short-circuited. His mom summons him back home after some discouraging medical news, and James — still unable to grow up — immediately begins cavorting again with his childhood buddy (Kid Cudi) and his new teenage girlfriend, whose emotional maturity is a stark reminder of his privileged, self-centered childishness. He's a repulsive character through-and-through — he shows up to a job interview at New York Magazine, where he has a family connection, in a T-shirt, reeking of booze, and is incredulous, almost insulted, that he's not offered a job on the spot. Even in his darkest moments, it's difficult to feel anything but contempt for him.
And yet, he does love his mother. Though his means of coming to her aid are themselves evidence of ugly entitlement — he demands a bed in an overcrowded hospital when his mother shouldn't be there in the first place — you begin to feel for him as you would a very young child, or a developmentally disabled person. Abbott and Nixon, playing a character whose illness can't conceal mixed feelings about her son, are both tremendous in their roles.
The camera shoots in intimate closeup, often following James from directly behind as he walks the streets of New York, or zooming in on his face in the hotel rooms and cabs where he spends unconscionable sums. It creates an atmosphere of discomfort and claustrophobia and is difficult to watch at first. Yet the technique turns out to be an ideal mode to follow our troubled, drunken solipsist through his pitch-dark days.