Director: Josh Mond
Screenplay: Josh Mond
Starring: Christopher Abbott, Cynthia Nixon, Scott Mescudi, Makenzie Leigh
Running Time: 84 mins
BBFC Classification: 15
“It’s OK to be sad.” Gail White’s words to her son following the death of his father, a father he barely knew, fail to resonate. James White (Christopher Abbott, brilliant, and almost unrecognisable from his turn as Charlie in Girls) is young New Yorker always on the run from pain and grief. Escaping through drink, drugs, sex, aggression, sleep – whatever he can, basically.
Abbott is restless, constantly agitated, moving around the confines of the frame, unable to escape it at it follows him around up close and personal as relentlessly as his mental anguish. There’s no clarity, no direction, as the film opens to ambient noise, giving way to thumping music, James drifts in and out of focus in a nightclub. He’s sweaty, swaying, with a glazed look in his eyes. Attempting a fleeting moment of calm he sticks in his earphones to hear the soothing sounds of Ray Charles’ ‘Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying’ (seemingly borrowed from his mother’s taste in music). But the calm won’t last. As he leaves the dark of the club to daylight sunshine (has he been there all night?) we are fully immersed in the disorientating world of James White, where day and night, good and bad, right and wrong are as hazy as his inebriated mind.
The problem? His mother has cancer. It seems that Gail White (an equally great turn from Cynthia Nixon) has been suffering for a few years now, and James has been her caregiver. Until now though, it appears that being able to sleep on her couch and mooch off her for a bit was as big a motivating factor as providing that care.
But as Gail takes a turn for the worse she’s sent home from the hospital when they realise there’s nothing more they can do. James is jolted out of his juvenile behaviour and forced to confront everything he’s been running from.
That’s not to say he’s immediately perfect. Far from it. James was selfish before, and he’s still pretty selfish now, hogging the camera and even the film’s title. When Jayne (Makenzie Leigh), his new girlfriend, doesn’t drop everything at a whim for his needs, he goes to a bar and hooks up with another girl, offering an empty promise to call her as she leaves in the morning. When he goes to a party with Jayne’s high school friends he causes trouble and forces them to leave. And occasionally, when he’s meant to be there for his mum, he oversleeps after a night of drinking.
People often wonder at what age you feel like a grown-up, but perhaps it’s more a case of if and when certain events occur. Perhaps it’s more about care. As a child, with any luck, you have someone caring for you, and at whatever point in your life that that care is no longer there, or no longer necessary, you’re forced to grow up a little. And when you take on the responsibility of care for someone else, from a pet, to a child or anything else, you’re forced to grow up some more. To James’ credit, while he’s not perfect, at least he tries to always do the right thing.
Josh Mond’s very personal film was never likely to get attention from the Academy Awards, but the Independent Spirit Awards nominated it for Best First Feature, as well as Abbott and Nixon for Best Male Lead and Best Supporting Female respectively – and rightly so. Nixon’s performance shows the ugly side (is there another side?) of cancer without a hint of ever dropping into Oscar-bait territory.
Spoilers from here.
Having dutifully carried his frail mother to the toilet in the middle of the night, life’s cycle of care comes full circle. Unable to muster the strength to head back to bed, a near-bald Gail is cradled in her son’s arms, as he tells her a story of a life that can never be. It’s an idyllic Parisian dream James is married, and where his two sons who visit all the museums with their grandmother, where Gail lives next door with an ex-pat whom she loves, and most importantly, where she no longer has cancer.
It’s the kind of comforting untruth that you tell children when they ask questions about what happens when you die or where Steve the hamster has disappeared to. It’s a life Gail can at least hope her son can achieve, even if she knows she won’t be part of it. And perhaps, for the first time, it’s something James might head towards, instead of running from his pain.
When Gail dies, James naturally flees the room, and the building, passing and ignoring the grief counsellor who has come to see him. But outside, for once, James is still. The world behind him is still out of focus, the frame still traps him, the camera still lingers on him capturing every aspect of pain and confusion on his face, but at least he isn’t running. And if he stops and takes his mother’s advice to reflect, to write about his pain, then maybe, just maybe, he’ll find some focus and be able to have some control over his next direction. Remember, it’s OK to be sad.
James White is out on DVD on 29 February from Soda Pictures.