This is a capsule review. A full review will be posted closer to release.
Though shot in a manner that will draw comparisons to another of this year’s festival breakouts, Josh Mond’s stealthily impactful James White most immediately recalls the 2012 hipster odyssey The Comedy. In both movies, a well-off and lazy 30-something New Yorker deals with the passing of their father by chasing a buzz, getting laid, and generally ignoring all responsibility. Whereas The Comedy was slow to peel back the thick armour of irony protecting the soft side of its selfish jerk, James White’s titular lay about is an exposed, damaged nerve from the get-go, while still being a thoroughly self-centered dirt-bag.
As played by Christopher Abbott, the unemployed, substance-abusing James has a likeable, man-child charm that helps soften his rough edges. That’s the problem: James is always just tolerable enough to his mother (Cynthia Nixon), best friend (Kid Cudi), and girlfriend (Makenzie Leigh) that he’s never had to make something of himself. The passing of James’ walkout father only reinforces his entitlement complex, and it takes the resurgence of his mother’s cancer for life to get too heavy to drown out with music or alcohol.
Shot with the same in-his-face closeness to its lead as the Hungarian drama Son of Saul, James White keeps Abbott’s delicate performance in the foreground, while still building a vibrant corner of New York around him. Breaking this attachment telegraphs big moments and scenes as many times as it serves to enhance them, but the intimacy of the close ups is ultimately to the benefit of Mond’s screenplay and actors. The last third of the film is raw and tender in its portrayal of filial responsibility, with Nixon and Abbott sharing a particular bathroom scene that’s as heartbreakingly felt as it is direct. Much the same can be said of the other 80 minutes in James White.
It’s hard to imagine a scenario where James White can’t be pointed to as among the best of this year’s American debuts.