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'James White's' Christopher Abbott, Cynthia Nixon make an affecting duo

 'James White's' Christopher Abbott, Cynthia Nixon make an affecting duo
Cynthia Nixon and Christopher Abbott in the movie "James White." (Matyas Erdely / The Film Arcade)

A knockout lead performance by Christopher Abbott and a superb supporting turn by Cynthia Nixon make the propulsive and deeply felt "James White" worth experiencing despite a difficult, at times elliptical story.

First-time feature writer-director Josh Mond proves a formidable force as he immerses us into the life of James White (Abbott of HBO's "Girls"), a self-sabotaging young New Yorker whose whirling-dervish existence may be reaching its expiration date. A hard-partying screw-up who's just lost his estranged father, James must now become a caregiver to his beloved mother, Gail (Nixon), a former schoolteacher grappling with Stage 4 cancer. It's a task he's thoroughly committed to — if he can just show up.

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Set over a handful of wintry months, the film tracks would-be writer James' attempts to get on some kind of actual life path — which includes a potential job at New York Magazine working for a family friend (Ron Livingston) — all while Gail moves through her inevitable demise. Meanwhile, James manages a Mexican getaway, attracts a high school-age girlfriend (Makenzie Leigh) and leans on his best friend, Nick (actor-musician Scott "Kid Cudi" Mescudi), for moral and practical support.

But it's the mother-son bond here that's the film's calling card. Even with a minimum of detail it's clear to see the powerful dynamic between James and Gail has been more port-in-the-storm friendship than one of dutiful co-dependence. If by spoiling — and loving — James she's enabled his rudderlessness, Gail has also fostered her son's passionate, protective side, which serves him well as things grow pitch-dark.

Their relationship, while tenderly etched, never turns overly sentimental in part because of Mond's gut-wrenching approach to depicting Gail's illness. A late-breaking scene in which James spins a story for Gail about the idyllic life they will never live together is a thing of beauty.

Kinetic camera work, tight framing and edgy editing, as well as a vital score by Mescudi plus other smart music choices, deftly reflect James' uncertain emotional states and juggling act of a life.

Ultimately, though, it's Abbott's show to steal — and steal it he does — as he rivetingly conjures a character who's chaotically charismatic, hugely affecting and for better or worse thoroughly real.

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"James White"

MPAA Rating: R for drug use, some sexuality/ nudity, and language.

Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes.

Playing: At ArcLight Cinemas, Hollywood.

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