Expressive close-up shots are a crucial building block of cinema, and they are especially foundational element for films that hope to elicit identification and empathy with the characters on screen. Perhaps nowhere is that more clear than “James White,” the feature directing and writing debut of Josh Mond.
Mond trains director of photography Mátyás Erdély to stay tightly fixated on the face of Christopher Abbott’s titular character as he goes through the ringer of grief. This young man, barely capable of taking care of himself, must see his widowed mother (Cynthia Nixon) through the deterioration of her health in the wake of terminal cancer. Think Michael Haneke’s “Amour” by way of Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona.”
The film is largely inspired by the filmmaker’s own experience of losing his mother, and the emotional authenticity becomes palpable both in Abbott’s performance and the audiovisual schema Mond devises. Erdély’s roving, personal camera – a veritable ballet as it follows James’ erratic, explosive motion – works wonderfully in tandem with a spellbinding score by Scott Mescudi. (Yes, that’s Kid Cudi.)
Abbott pulls off a rare combination: volatility and vulnerability. James flirts with disaster and near complete collapse in practically every scene, which proves difficult and stomach-churning to watch unfold. But in spite of his poor decision making, he still manages to inspire intense feelings of identification and support. We root not for the circumstances, terrible as they are, to change. We root for him to rise to the occasion, to summon the strength of character Abbott shows us in a small glance or a gentle word.
Unfortunately, Nixon’s Gail White does not get nearly the depth of character treatment as her son. Part of that is understandable, given that the film is very much about him and the strides of maturity he must make to function as an orphan in the world. Yet, by the same stroke, it also serves to slightly reduce her to the cancer she battles, making a spectacle of her illness.
In most movies, that would be the star turn. (Cough, “Freeheld.”) But Abbott’s virtuosic work in “James White” puts Nixon’s to shame. We watch the seconds count down on his human ticking time bomb, becoming all the more concerned and compelled as we observe this tour de force. A- /