"James White" is more satisfying as an actors' showcase and an in-the-moment scenario than it is as a story, but there's value in that approach when it has these actors and this director at the helm.
The film, now on video-on-demand services, stars Christopher Abbott (best known for playing Charlie on the first two seasons of "Girls") as the eponymous 20-something, a ne'er-do-well and all-around screw-up dealing with the fallout of the death of a father he barely knew. He has no real income and gets by on the good grace of his mother, Gail (Cynthia Nixon), who learns shortly after her ex-husband's funeral that her cancer has returned and spread.
The film establishes a familiar pattern early on: James oscillates between being a loving, caring son trying to help his mother during her last six months of life and being an irresponsible idiot who lets down his friends and family. Yet director Josh Mond runs through this pattern with great specificity and texture: James is introduced in close-up, sweaty, dazed, definitely drunk and probably high in a club, trying to drown out the dance music with his headphones (Ray Charles' version of "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Cryin'"), a mix of sentimentalism, melancholy and sweaty desperation to forget his situation. Mond keeps things close to Abbott's face but jump cuts to different moments, from James getting in a cab to a seemingly instantaneous arrival at his mother's place to sit shiva. James lives moment-to-moment with moments cut out by his bleary being, arriving late to the funeral to a chiding but understanding mother.
Mond replicates that feeling and expands on it throughout the film, moving from James demanding time to himself to go on vacation to his quick return when Gail calls him with her cancer news; from James showing up late to his mom's house only to find her, confused and sickly in a store aisle, to his attempt to find her the simplest of comforts in a hospital; from him badly botching a job interview with New York Magazine to a scene dealing with her at her weakest point. Every moment of "James White" is lived-in and aching, with an atmosphere of exhaustion and barely-kept resilience, of pain and tenderness matched by Mond's frenzied style and a music that runs from ambient (provided by rapper Scott "Kid Cudi" Mescudi, who acquits himself well as James' long-suffering best friend) to old standards (Billie Holiday's "There Is No Greater Love").
Though there are strong supporting turns from Mescudi and Ron Livingston (playing a warm and understanding cousin with the difficult task of turning James away at New York Magazine), the film is primarily focused on the difficult, loving dynamic between James and Gail. Abbott doesn't short-sell James' worst qualities: He's obnoxious, self-centered and prone to alarming fits of anger, getting into a bar fight over next to nothing and moving with a bravado that frightens his friends; but he also allows James moments of humor, charisma and fun, and sweetness and vulnerability as he takes care of his mother.
Nixon is equally strong, playing a woman who loves her son unconditionally but still voices her disappointment in his layabout nature ("all you ever do is take breaks"), made worse as her body and mind start to fail her and he's the only one she can depend on. Late scenes of Nixon struggling to find the ability to speak or walk as Abbott talks her through it, promising a great future for the two of them that he knows isn't going to come are almost unbearably poignant and sad, showing two people finding slight moments of support amidst the worst experience of their lives.
So moving are these scenes that it feels almost churlish to note that Mond doesn't really have an idea of where to take these characters beyond their immediate experience; the film doesn't end so much as it stops, and though it's an affecting portrait of grief, it doesn't have much of anything to say about it aside from "it sucks to go through it." Still, there's promise in Abbott and Mond's careers if they can make that experience that vivid.
"James White" is now available on video-on-demand services including Amazon, iTunes, VUDU and YouTube for $3.99.