The “it happened to me, so it should be a movie” (or book, or play, or blog or whatever) genre is a murky one to navigate. Everyone has had something crazy happen to them, but unless you’re the dude who survived getting his arm crushed by a boulder and pinned to the side of a mountain for five days, or the guy who wrote This Boy’s Life, then it doesn’t necessarily mean you should charge people to hear about it.
The difference between good and bad memoir stuff is that, with the good, it’s like reading someone’s journal, and discovering the story inside to be a masterpiece. The bad is when someone’s like, “Behold my opus,” and it’s a journal entry about being sad. It’s sort of like art critic Dave Hickey’s “Huh? Wow!”/“Wow! Huh?” theory. Long story short, “Huh? Wow!” describes something challenging and deep. “Wow! Huh?” describes something hyped, but ultimately not resonant. Josh Mond’s directorial debut James White is about a thinly veiled version of himself grappling with the reality of caring for his dying mother. It utilizes many handheld close-ups of his character crying, drinking, hugging, fist fighting, and people intensely telling him to relax. Most of the press embraces that Mond is quick talk about that emotional period of his life as inspiration for this film, but neither he nor the film illuminate why his story is different than any other person’s story of loss, or why it should be seen.
The film opens with a tight handheld shot of James White (played by Girls actor Chris Abbot) drinking and smoking and passing out, then going to his father’s wake, where we meet his mother Gail (played by Cynthia Nixon). We learn that James justifies living on Gail’s couch with the deluded notion that he is still taking care of her despite her cancer’s remission. It’s deluded, because Gail calls him out on it before he leaves to do acid in Mexico. While in Mexico, Gail calls him and says she has cancer again. He takes a flight back to New York, and drinks and checks in on his mom, whose condition spirals from bad to worse. He takes her to the hospital, and becomes aware that she was hiding from him that she should be in hospice care. His friend Kid Cudi comes back from Mexico and deals with James drinking and punching people (and sorry – allow me to digress for just one second. In the Q&A after the screening, Mond was like, “I was a problem child, like the main character. I had to take care of my dying mom, like the main character, and I really liked Kid Cudi’s music at the time,” so he wrote that a Kid Cudi character should be his character’s best friend in the movie, and now they’re friends in real life. Is that weird, or just a funny coincidence? Should we care about this? Who cares? I feel like Donald Trump talking about those red Starbucks cups right now. It doesn’t really matter. None of this matters. This movie doesn’t matter). Gail is on the verge of death. James tries to get a job, fails, reduces his mom’s fever in the middle of the night and helps her to the bathroom, and then later cries with Kid Cudi. James walks out of the apartment for a smoke. Cut to black. Chris Abbot’s interpretation of the character is solid, and Cynthia Nixon unflinchingly disappears into the challenging role of the mother. Together they craft scenes that add intensity and meaning to the movie. Kid Cudi’s charismatic presence is welcomed.
Though this was Mond’s first time directing a feature, being part of a collective, Borderline Films, has given him experience producing other great indies. Critics have high hopes for him, and cite his ability to extract great performances from the actors. The acting truly buoys the film’s flimsy content, but it fails to acknowledge that the film’s keystone is his mother, not the son, who must find energy to show unconditional love while contending with imminent death. The camera was too fixated on Chris Abbot’s soulful eyes as he reenacted Mond’s past. The reason James White is not anything more than an exercise in writing therapy is that Mond failed to see beyond his immediate sense of self, which unfortunately made for a one-dimensional film about, well, himself. And he’s not that interesting yet.