Movie Review: James White

Independent film takes a harsh look at a young man facing a family crisis and himself

Interview: Josh Mond talks about 'James White'

Most films try to at their core present a likable person, someone perhaps flawed but with redeeming qualities. It is not so clear in James White, a low-budget independent film American film about a young man who loses his father and then right on the heels of that sees his mother face a relapse of cancer.

The action takes place mostly in New York City, with the title character adrift is a world of daytime drinking, drugs and one-night stands. He has an excuse for everything, topped by promises that he will soon get his act together and concentrate on his writing.

Originally the title character was supposed to be a bit more sympathetic. “We were concerned about how likable he would be,” writer and director Josh Mond said in a telephone interview.

But lead actor Christopher Abbott pushed Mond to make a more realistic role. “It is more truthful when things are ugly. We aren't very pretty,” Mond said.

Mond in the end decided not to sugarcoat the story, which is what creates its unusual flavor. There are many films about people dealing with the loss of a close relative through some disease, but most try to be uplifting, making a saints out of the ailing person and the relatives.

The character of James is different. He is filled with things that people wouldn't say aloud about themselves, according to Mond. “He is running away from the one moment he was avoiding and from how he feels about himself. He is forced to deal with himself,” Mond said.

His mother is also a bit different from the mold. Cynthia Nixon plays Gail White, who has been undergoing cancer treatment.

The actress is a familiar face, having had a recurring role in the TV series Sex and the City as well as the two related films, among other series and miniseries. She also had a minor role in the 1984 film Amadeus.

She captures the ups and downs of her illness and also of the medical system in the United States. She is certainly more sympathetic than her son, but it is a gritty role as well, showing the more realistic struggles of a seriously ill patient.

The approach took some getting used to. Mond said that he wasn't sure he liked the film until it was practically finished.

Mond lost his mother to cancer and took that as an inspiration for the film. “It is not my story entirely,” he said. Like James, he was raised by a single mom, but there are differences. “It is a combination of stories, a composite,” he said.

The film begins with the death of James' father, but he remains an enigma. One would expect some flashbacks or at least a bit of dialogue to explain who he was, but there is very little. “He's just not a part of the story; he was not a part of James' life,” Mond said.

One thing that seems puzzling is how James pays for everything — at one point he takes a trip to help find himself. Mond said that insurance from his father's estate is one answer. Having to face up to his lack of money and becoming responsible enough to earn some, rather than leaching off others, is a key theme of the film.

Mond is much further in his career than James, who is starting out as a writer. Mond is a fairly accomplished filmmaker, with 13 credits for shorts and features as a producer. James White is his first credit as a writer and director of a feature.

One thing that Mond overlooked was double checking the name of the main character. Some people when they hear the name James White and that the film is set in New York think it is about a No Wave musician who was popular in the 1980s lower Manhattan club scene. Mond says it hasn't been a problem, and audiences quickly figure out the film is about something else.

To get his film made, Mond relied heavily on people he knew from other films that he had worked on.

Previously, his most successful film was in 2011. He was a producer on Martha Marcy May Marlene, which had a fairly high profile due to Elizabeth Olsen in the starring role. It also featured Christopher Abbott, who would star in James White.

Even with the help of others, getting the film made was difficult. “My partners fought to get everything together, but it was not easy,” he said.

But he finds the struggle worth it. “Movies have been very important and inspiring to me. They have been like a taste of having a family,” he said.

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