(JOSH MOND, 2015)
James White (Christopher Abbot), an aspiring writer, has humanity pegged on a very low scale and prefers not to take notice of them. He’s first seen in claustrophobic close-up at a nightclub, earbuds drowning out the sound of the unfocused background. You see glimpses of a world in the background of the frame, people celebrating and dancing. James isn’t part of that world; he’s perpetually disconnected from that realm. A blast of sunlight consumes him as he steps out of the club, as he makes his way to his father’s wake.
Plenty of buzzwords could be used to describe the intensity of Josh Mond’s debut, from its visceral authenticity to its unflinching portrayal of suffering and depression, and yet so rare is it that those words seem so insufficient to describe just how overwhelming an experience it is to watch James White. This is a film that confronts you with its emotional burden, whereby the trek of its titular character is something to be climbed, vertically. It is not an easy sit to see a man in his twenties confronted by the impossible task of coping with the death of his estranged father while witnessing the disintegration of his mother, Gail (Cynthia Nixon in an unforgettable role).
Mond designs the film as a series of vignettes, deploying title cards to specify the months (we begin in November and end in March). Five months, five acts that follow James as he contends with loss, a pleasant but all too brief sojourn to Mexico, and the vivid suffering of his ailing mother. Yet what makes James White so provocative is how Mond highlights the little moments; how amid the ugly cruelty found on the surface, a deep-rooted humanism can be uncovered. A notable sequence sees James assisting his mother to the bathroom as she combats lethargy and fever, the cancer spreading with accelerated intensity. With his mother in his arms, James asks her where she wants to be. “Paris”, she replies. The poet in James flushes out a fairy tale, a cascade of images that summons upon a future in Paris where James has a family, where Gail is healthy, where the family lives in a harmony that has eluded them all their lives. Mond holds the frame on the two, as a singular piece of non-diegetic music enters the soundscape. We never lose sight of the two, tired in huddled embrace in a dimly lit bathroom, but that piece of music echoing the sentiment of James’ story is obliterating.