James White is the debut feature film from writer and director Josh Mond. From the off, Mond creates a very particular and peculiar sense of dissociation of time and place. When the audience first meets the eponymous James White (played with a touching little-boy-lost vibe by Christopher Abbott), he is in a busy nightclub, yet he is listening on his headphones to a completely different type of music, as if he is out of sync with life. He steps out of the dark nightclub into daylight, which is again disorientating. Then he steps into a cab and closes his eyes. Seemingly in seconds, he has reached his destination, “that was quick.” He returns home and we realise it is a house in mourning. In this way, Mond manages to make us feel as distant and removed from life as James himself seems to feel, which sets the tone for the rest of the film.
James White is a modern-day Hamlet figure, mourning a father and stubbornly dismissing anyone’s attempts to try and talk to him about it. James is also, like the aforementioned Dane, unable to galvanise himself into any kind of action. His best friend, Nick, his level-headed Horatio, played by Scott Mescudi (better known to some as musician Kit Cudi) remains loyal to James while he grieves for his father. Also loyal and loving is James’ mother, Gail (Cynthia Nixon, who everyone will recognise as Miranda from Sex and the City). Gail is pitched perfectly as a deeply caring mother who reminds her son that he needs to sort himself out, while also still being incredibly affectionate. James decides to go away for a while, announcing, “when I come back, I will be ready for life.”
However, this is a not a ‘quest’ story – there is no victorious journey and great epiphany signalling a coming of age. James must return home and face another challenge; his mother has become seriously ill. He must do his growing up quickly.
It’s a film which draws attention to some of our last taboos; grief and mental health. James is a character with a look of infinite sadness in his eyes, yet he is surrounded by people and therefore has to expend most of his energy just trying to seem okay. We are prompted to ask if it is this concept of having to stay strong which keeps someone sane, or if it in fact forces them to crumble. Characters in this film are shown sitting on their own fears for the sake of one another, they smile and say that everything is fine when it’s really not. As James is shown pinballing around the confines of cramped rooms, wracked with anxiety for the future, he starts to ask himself, over and over, “What am I supposed to do?” Part of accepting adulthood is realising that no-one really knows the answer to that question. Like, ever.
This is not a film which gives any answers. Probably because there is no right way to deal with anxiety and grief. Mond does, however, present us with some uncomfortable truths; for example the fact that those around you may get tired of you not being okay after a while. If only because this reminds them that there are things to not be okay about. It’s also about how sickness can make us selfish, as well as the wrenching role reversal which can happen when a child has to take care of a parent – and how precious a fleeting imagined fantasy can be when it’s shared in a moment of desperation.
The level of intensity with which Mond explores James’ state of mind, as well as the struggles which he is facing, can mean that other characters receive less attention than they perhaps deserve. The revelation of Nick’s sexuality is not really pursued. Apparently some scenes were filmed with Mescudi kissing a same-sex-partner and this failure to develop his character is disappointing. Similarly, James’ girlfriend, Jayne (Makenzie Leigh) is a welcome inclusion in the film, but she slowly disappears from the film’s narrative without much explanation.
Members of the cast and crew of James White dealt with some of their own demons during filming. It’s a film which elps you to feel catharsis in the truly theatrical sense of the word. It’s not always easy to watch your fears being played out, but the film draws out powerful emotions, and hopefully helps its audience to purge some of those feelings through the main character’s confrontation of them. It is also worth noting that through all this melancholy, we see some glimmers of light – fond moments between James and Jayne, James’ interaction with a small child in a queue at the pharmacy and a sombre bluesy soundtrack which is nevertheless soothingly mellow. My final thought for the day? The human relationships in this story are tested to their limits, but hold firm – and that is the most reassuring thing of all.
James White is out on DVD from February 29.