James White

Here is the latest effort from Martha Marcy May Marlene producer Josh Mond, who writes and directs this tale of the eponymous millennial man-child (played by Christopher Abbot of Martha and “Girls”) who is struggling to come to grips with life and reality while he cares for the mother who was the only parent he really knew.

This is a really engaging low-budget effort, on a par with Victoria, except more disciplined because, you know, not just one take. Our opening sequence is all done in a very tight shot of James’ face and while that opens up a bit later, it stays pretty intimate for the most part, throughout.

It's like a disease with Hollywood: Christmas must be depressing!
Another feel good holiday film!

And while we’ve seen plenty of movies about listless millennials, dissolutely going through their lives with no purpose, casual in their responsibilities as they are in sex, drug and alcohol use, this one is different: it shows a fine character underneath the poor grasp of life and other real-world situations.

When the movie opens (past the initial sequence) we find James at a gathering in his mother’s apartment, being scolded by her for being late, and we learn that it’s a sort of wake (or shiva, even though they’re not Jewish) for James’ father. This is his first time meeting his father’s other family: an asian woman and his young teen half-sister. I wasn’t clear on this but it almost seemed like he had only recently learned who his father was. In any event: “some guy who wasn’t around”.

He does some awkward things, socially, though protective of his mother who is letting this other family just run the occasion, and we see her not much later accusing him of using her illness (she beat cancer) to not get his act together. He moved back to take care of her four years ago, he says. She says two, which one hopes is correct, since James is supposed to be 21, and for him to have moved back when he was 17 seems a bit extreme. At the same time, we are definitely given reason to believe him over her later on. So, who knows?

Mother is played by Cynthia Nixon in a probably award-garnering turn which I hope doesn’t take away from Abbot’s movie-carrying performance. The two of them are the focus of the film, though rapper Scott Mescudi plays true-blue pal Nick very convincingly. Ron Livingston plays an editor who is a friend of, and apparently far more connected to, James’ father who tries to give James a job.

I really should stop making these terrible jokes.
It’s like “Sex and the City 3”! Only funnier.

Angel-faced Makenzie Leigh (“Gotham”, “The Slap”, a model previously known as Mak Weinman) plays Jayne, a girl James picks up in Mexico who ends up being more patient and dedicated than the circumstances of their meeting might suggest.

And yes, her hand is where you think it would be.
For some reason, this is the only still of her I can find from the film.

If there’s a narrative flaw here, it’s that we can’t really be sure how James is going to turn out, nor how the Jayne/James storyline is going to resolve. The film, which definitely has a loose, unscripted feel to it—though not a sloppy feel—does a really fine job in tying things up enough at the end that we don’t feel cheated. I just would’ve liked a little more something at the end. A little more Jayne could’ve given the audience a stronger signal.

Nonetheless, we did enjoy this, despite the rather intense material. There is a kind of “disease porn” out there, where movies, in an attempt to achieve “realism”, wallow in the various ungraceful or humiliating aspects of a disease, and I thought this avoided that well. There is some awful stuff, of course, but it all seems to feed into the narrative. Certainly a nod must go to editor Matthew Hannam (who has a ton of credits, none of which I recognize, probably because he’s Canadian) for keeping things moving at an interesting pace.

Anyway, good work all around, and if you’re not looking for escapist fun but rather intense drama, this is a good pick.

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