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.
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.
MPAA Rating: R for drug use, some sexuality/ nudity, and language.
Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes.
Playing: At ArcLight Cinemas, Hollywood.