James White (Christopher Abbott) is a troubled twenty-something trying to stay afloat in a frenzied New York City. He retreats further into a self-destructive, hedonistic lifestyle, but as his mother (Cynthia Nixon) battles a serious illness James is forced to take control of his life. As the pressure on him mounts, James must find new reserves of strength or risk imploding completely.Written by
Christopher Abbott and Cynthia Nixon have found fine homes on HBO screens. Abbott is perhaps mostly known for his role on Girls while Nixon will forever be a Sex in the City girl. Here in James White, they deliver perhaps their finest performances of their careers thus far. The film thrives off the compassion in their relationship and the way it tests James' love for his mother Gail, but unfortunately to the expense of what lies on the sidelines. There's an endearing affection between James and his best friend Nick, but it offers little backstory or arc, simply the type of wishful thinking support considering the situations. The film also lends an entire chapter to James growing close with a girl who becomes his girlfriend, but as soon as the film retreats back home to tend to Gail she's completely tossed aside as another periphery character.
That is part of the point though, taking care of her is all consuming and it contrasts the conditions of romantic love with the unconditional family love. Despite little dips into history, the film grew on me as it went on with Abbott impressing at every turn, subverting the brutish James to an empathetic son. Nixon does feel like she's trying too hard at first, but once the film submits to her and she succumbs to the worst of her cancer, she's as good as Abbott. Shot by the same cinematography as Son of Saul, New York is no less of a compelling setting than Auschwitz, focusing on intimacy with the characters, but again it's heart by choppy editing. The jump cuts give it a difficult rhythm to crack. It's limited and intense, and I certainly would've like a little more bittersweet hints at a future to really send the film home, but as an acting showcase James White is a powerhouse.
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