'James White': Sundance Review

A viscerally acted drama whose rich visual and sonic textures intensify the plunge into the title character's messy life

Christopher Abbott and Cynthia Nixon play a slacker careening out of control and his mother battling cancer in Josh Mond's first feature.

Christopher Abbott bailed on playing the doormat boyfriend to Allison WilliamsMarnie after season two of Girls. Watching his bruised, bristling performance as the rudderless title character in James White, it's natural to assume that choice was dictated by the actor's hunger for a darker exploration of his considerable range. The opportunity is provided in this extraordinarily intimate drama, which marks an arresting feature debut for writer-director Josh Mond of Borderline Films, the New York-based indie production collective behind such projects as Martha Marcy May Marlene and Simon Killer.

On the surface, the plot elements seem quite conventional — a hard-partying hedonist in his wayward twenties is forced by his mother's terminal illness to put the brakes on his dissolute self-destruction. But from the first restless widescreen frames and the woozy opening notes of a soundtrack densely layered with music and ambient noise, this is a distinctive portrait of anger, pain and grief that unfolds simultaneously on and under the skin.

The central character's name as film title is an indication of the singularity of focus here, and Abbott's raw performance withstands the close scrutiny. His character may sport the regulation Williamsburg beard, but this is not the usual bleakly romanticized hipster hymn to life on the jagged edge. It's a deeply felt account of a jaded young man flailing his way into adulthood without a net — discovering the fragility beneath his numbed shell only when he finally faces the reality of losing the person closest to him.

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That person is James' mother Gail, a mellow, bookish former schoolteacher played by Cynthia Nixon with bracing emotional candor and a stunning absence of vanity. Mond's skill at working with actors is equal to his fully developed visual style and assured modulation of atmosphere and tone. This may be a small movie, but it's an impressively rigorous one without an ounce of flab.

The action is broken down in onscreen titles over five months, beginning in November. Gail is first seen sitting shiva for her deceased ex-husband, offering her sympathy to the man's second wife and daughter while keeping her own feelings in check. James raises eyebrows by rolling up still wired from last night's booze and drugs. Gail grumbles about his late arrival, his failure to pick up her meds as promised and his continued residence in her apartment rather than getting a job and a place of his own. But it's clear from her affectionate manner that she cuts him a lot of slack.

James hits the town with his longtime buddy Nick (Scott "Kid CudiMescudi, who also contributed music); they get into a bar fight, go clubbing, get trashed and hook up with fresh acquaintances for some casual sex. That rinse-and-repeat pattern continues when James joins Nick at a Mexican resort where he's been working, and he strikes up a sort of relationship with another New Yorker, Jayne (Mackenzie Leigh). Despite promising his mother that the trip would serve for him to clean up, straighten out and work on his writing, James shows no desire to change.

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A call from home saying that Gail's cancer has spread and she needs to resume treatment jolts him back to reality. There's also a job offer on the table from family friend Ben (Ron Livingston), an editor at New York Magazine, who wants to help. But his mother accurately pegs James as selfish and dissatisfied, and he does little to prove her wrong.

The behavioral turnaround that inevitably has to shape the loose narrative's development might easily have become formulaic. But in Abbott's full-throttle performance, James' aggressive resistance to self-discipline is convincingly rooted in internal anxiety and fear. While he's an unreliable caregiver, the mother-son bond is never in doubt, and scenes depicting severe medical crises late in the movie are played by both Abbott and Nixon with wrenching tenderness. The progression of James hitting rock bottom and then coming through as a source of comfort in a harrowingly beautiful all-night vigil is extremely moving.

There's economy and a lovely simplicity in the way Mond sketches relationships through casual glimpses, which extends also to the details we receive about Gail's illness. Thoughtful use of music, from electronica to Billie Holiday, and the controlled agitation of cinematographer Matyas Erdely's handheld camera — often in ultra-tight closeup — give this acutely observed film a look and feel that perfectly mirror the protagonist's state of mind.

Production company: Borderline Films
Cast: Christopher Abbott, Cynthia Nixon, Scott Mescudi, Ron Livingston, Mackenzie Leigh, Scott Cohen, David Call
Director-screenwriter: Josh Mond
Producers: Antonio Campos, Sean Durkin, Melody C. Roscher, Max Born, Eric Schultz
Executive producers: Andrew Kelley, Sean Langton
Director of photography: Matyas Erdely
Production designers: Jade Healy, Scott Kuzio
Costume designer: Emma Potter
Music: Scott "Kid CudiMescudi
Editor: Matthew Hannam
Casting: Susan Shopmaker
Sales: UTA

No rating, 88 minutes.