Toronto 2015: ‘James White’ review


The guys at Borderline Films are making something of a habit of striking, complex psychological dramas such as Antonio Campos’ After School and Simon Killer, or Sean Durkin’s excellent Martha Marcy May Marlene. The third member of this cinematic triumvirate is Josh Mond who having served as producer on the aforementioned films makes his directorial debut with James White (2015). A rigorous and austere drama, it’s ostensibly a coming-of-age movie, albeit on in which the catalyst for change is the crippling cancer of the protagonist’s mother. Christopher Abbott and Cynthia Nixon both give splendid performances, lending clear-eyed tenderness to this maternal bond.

The scenes in which the pair verbally joust are the standouts, with Abbott’s sullen sense of obligation melted time and again by Nixon’s wry smile. From the opening shot he is filmed in close-up that almost sees him looking into camera. It’s an uncompromising perspective that doesn’t so much try to present events from his point of view as keep an unflinching eye on him as he experiences them. Mond and DoP Mátyás Erdély don’t stick rigidly to their angle of choice, but it provides an arresting intimacy and agitated intensity that mimics James’ own emotional rawness. James (Abbott) is a rudderless, upper middle-class white New Yorker who’s never needed to step fully into the real world.

James just wants to party hard and write, but the death of his absentee father sends him into something of a tailspin, and quite suddenly he begins to feel the weight of the man-of-the-house position he has adopted since the diagnosis of his easy-going mother, Gail (Nixon). The details of her deteriorating condition are imparted through snatches of mumbled dialogue and infrequent asides, and this is commendably the same kind of approach taken toward characterisation. Even with the camera trained directly at him for much of the runtime, Abbott’s is a subtle turn, overwrought in just about the right quantity, he is otherwise restrained like James, the camera doing the work of conveying his anxiety. The supporting characters are equally understated – an under-age girlfriend (Makenzie Leigh) and a gay best friend (Scott Mescudi) are both dropped into the narrative with refreshingly little fanfare. It’s an admirable approach, that gives a sense of authenticity to what may now be a familiar plot line but it does also slightly reduce the impact of the piece. It would make sense if that were a stylistic decision, but that doesn’t stop it feeling like a slightly missed opportunity when fired on by two such fine performances. Despite this, James White is still a moving and thought-provoking showcase for cast and director alike.

The Toronto International Film Festival takes place from 10-20 September 2015. For more coverage, follow this link.

Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson