Independent film was once a nothing concept but with the rise in eminence of the internet this has shifted 180 to the point where young filmmakers need to carve out their own niche in order to stand out. Joshua Mond along with fellow Borderline films collective members Antonio Campos (Simon Killer & Afterschool) and Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene & Southcliffe) sought triumph in numbers. James White sees Mond make his directorial debut, graduating from producing for Campos and Durkin, who coincidentally are present here on producer duties.
James White tells the story of a 20-something struggling to take control of his reckless decadence in the face of coming to terms with his Mother’s illness. On paper this is a film that appears to be an American independent drama painted by numbers and as true as that is as a snapshot, Mond has directed one of the better examples of Post-Sundance Independent film. Even if the story travels down much travelled and trite indie staples, Mond made a directorial decision that elevates his debut beyond and above its derivative cousins.
Miss Bala and Son of Saul cinematographer Mátyás Erdély lenses the film in such a way that his camera never leaves the side of Christopher Abbott – a choice that gives his characterisation and descent into helplessness grandness. Whether it’s aiding his ailing Mum, showering or engaging in decadence of the sexual and substance consuming kind, the camera is metaphorically joined at his hip. In this we see the significance of his fall and his hopeless struggle to hold on to anything familiar – this constant allows the performances to stand tall.
Christopher Abbott brings a powerhouse performance. As James White engages in self-satisfaction he is of primo ego, especially with his status as an unemployed writer, but when he receives a phone call ushering him back to New York he goes through a change. Upon his return Abbott falls to pieces, as someone who is losing the only family he has a frustration in the face of his futile effort in aiding his Mother. Knowing there is little he can do, both literally and as a by-product of struggling to find the necessary aid; Abbott is heartbreakingly good. Just by looking in his eyes you can see a man struggling to keep control.
On his own, Abbott’s sincerity wouldn’t amount to much it’s only by playing off Cynthia that the power comes. As his Mum, Gail, Nixon demonstrates an ability which has rarely if ever had the chance to do throughout her career. The intensity of performance suggests an autobiographical quality where Nixon is concerned. With a physicality to her performance that could only be found by someone who has been personally affected by terminal illness. Two scenes illuminate this; Gail briefly loses her ability to talk and later James has to take his Mum to the toilet, through which both exhibit an unsettling raw realism that’s often difficult to watch.
As provocative as Mond is behind the camera and as good as he is at getting performances, James White never truly surpasses its indie confines. Don’t misunderstand; Independent Cinema gave a platform for some of the finest names working today and is an essential democratisation of the medium. But by the very definition and mass of similarly powerful films being produced through similarly meagre means more is needed to rise to the top; and as good as James White is it is merely one of many.