Review: James White

Last Updated on August 5, 2021


This review originally ran as part of our Sundance 2015 coverage.

PLOT: A young man (Christopher Abbott) struggles to come-to-terms with the death of his estranged father, as well as his mother's (Cynthia Nixon) terminal illness.

REVIEW: We all know a James White. Heck, maybe some of us are a James White. By that I mean, everyone has a friend that's self-destructive, or a side to themselves where despite intelligence, good breaks, and a strong support system, they just can't get their shit together. As played by Christopher Abbott in director/screenwriter Josh Mond's debut, the titular character is one of those lost souls. He rolls through his life like a tow-truck, destroying every opportunity that comes his way, yet you can't help but pull for him as there's no malice to him whatsoever. The only one he hurts is himself.

White is an interesting contradiction. The first scene finds him in a club, literally dancing to his own tune by wearing an iPod, drinking himself into oblivion and then – in a surreal revelation – walking out of the club into the New York daylight, making his way to his father's Shiva. There his estranged relatives all greet him as the black sheep he his, other than his adoring mother (Nixon) and best fiend (Kid Cudi). From there we follow him first on a self-destructive binge through NYC, then to an idyllic vacation in Mexico where he hooks up with a young woman and drops acid, before the main part of the story begins, which is him coming-to-terms with his mother's imminent death, with her suffering from stage IV cancer.

James White could have been an impossible protagonist to follow around but Abbott – who's rising up fast through the indie ranks – makes him an easy guy to identify with. For all of his faults, he's a good friend, with him sincerely telling his good-natured best pal (Cudi – who's excellent) that he'd literally help him dispose of a dead body if the need arises. A nice touch is making the Cudi character gay, which is never made a big deal out of but marks a nice contrast to White's overwhelming alpha-male personality, with him constantly trying to intimidate people physically or getting into fights.

This is really a nuanced, layered performance by Abbott, but the skillful writing certainly does him a huge favor. In the Q&A it was revealed that Mond had lost his mother shortly before writing the screenplay and that he poured all of his hurt into it. It certainly has that authenticity, mixed with terrific production values with this having been done in collaboration with his company partners Antonio Campos (SIMON KILLER) & Sean Durkin (MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE & SOUTHCLIFE – now on Netflix). The visuals are crisp and stylish, marking an interesting counter-point to the emotional rawness of the performances.

One person whose work here can't be overlooked is Cynthia Nixon, who I'd wager is Oscar-worthy as White's dying mom. Hitting all the right notes, she's alternately sweet and sour as a result of her dementia-causing chemo, and she remains a warm, sympathetic figure throughout. At times she's absolutely heartbreaking, and it's her relationship with her doting son that gives the film its heart, which distinguishes it from a lot of the other films I've seen at Sundance this year.

JAMES WHITE is another of those Sundance gems that hopefully will get a good release as the work by everyone involved is just too good to be ignored. It's well-worth seeking out, and really one of the best movies I've seen here this year.

Review: James White




About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.