Arrested Development Meets Adulthood In 'James White'

Nov 13, 2015
Originally published on November 14, 2015 8:27 am

Last week, James Bond, this week James White — proof, should any be required, that fall movies come in all shapes and sizes.

Filmmaker Josh Mond, making his feature directing debut after producing a slew of intriguing indies, brings intensity to an intimate domestic drama about a feckless New York City slacker who appears to have a fight-or-flight approach to a familial crisis.

James (Christopher Abbott) isn't doing well when we first meet him. He's at a loud nightclub, hiding out from his feelings, from his family — from everything, really. Even from the club's dance music — he's trying unsuccessfully to drown it out with Ray Charles on his headphones.

When James gets back to his mom's mourner-crowded apartment the reason he's been avoiding the world becomes clearer. The family is sitting shiva for his long-estranged dad, with mom Gail (Cynthia Nixon) enduring polite conversation with the far younger wife who replaced her as guests watch videos of that younger wife in happier times.

"Did you put on your wedding video?" James incredulously asks the stepmother he's just met, before ordering everyone from the apartment.

He's understandably indignant, but there's an undercurrent of panic in the protection he's affording his own mother. He feels her slipping away too. She's been ill, and he's ill-equipped — a 20-something slacker no one cuts any slack, including his mother who, once the crowd is gone, meets his assertion that he needs a break with an icy, "That's all you do, James, is take breaks."

His next one's a doozy — a trip to Mexico with his best bud Nick (rapper Scott Mescudi, better known as Kid Cudi, terrifically understated) where he swears he'll "eat healthy, swim, work out" and when he gets back, he says, "I'll be ready for life."

Possibly you have to be a 20-something underachiever to have this sound like a realistic plan, but writer/director Mond isn't mocking his title character. He's setting up the family dynamic that will fuel the rest of the film. Mom is still strong at this point, but she's facing a bumpy road ahead. A collapse while her son is off partying in Mexico takes a terrible toll, and on his return, Abbott's willfully immature James, so painfully needy himself, must gather up all the strength he's inherited from Gail to care for her.

As I say, bumpy road. And James White is never more moving than when the filmmaker shows his callow hero doing the best he can: when James helps his mom weather a particularly rough patch, for instance, with what amount to real-life bedtime stories. Imagining happy scenes he's pretty sure she'll never see — of James all grown up.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Last week, James Bond, this week, James White. The indie drama titled "James White" stars two performers best-known for their work on TV, Christopher Abbot of "Girls" and Cynthia Nixon of "Sex And The City." NPR critic Bob Mondello says they bring intensity to an intimate story.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: James isn't doing well when we meet him. He's at a club, hiding out from his feelings, from his family, from everything, really, even from the club's dance music. He's trying unsuccessfully to drown it out with Ray Charles on his headphones.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JAMES WHITE")

MONDELLO: When James gets back to his mom's apartment, which is crowded with mourners, the reason he's been avoiding the world becomes clearer. The family is sitting shiva for his long-estranged dad, his mom enduring polite conversation with the far-younger wife who replaced her, as guests watch videos of that younger wife in happier times.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JAMES WHITE")

CHRISTOPHER ABBOTT: (As James White) Karen, did you put on your wedding video? Does anyone have the remote?

MONDELLO: James is understandably indignant.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JAMES WHITE")

ABBOTT: (As James White) Excuse me, everybody. I'm James. I'm going to have to ask all of you to leave, just for my mother and I to grieve in peace over my dead father. I know it's a bad time and everyone's sad, but I'm going to have to ask you all to go.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) A spoiled little boy.

ABBOTT: (As James White) Nick, I'm going to hit him if he stays.

MONDELLO: James is so protective of his mom because he feels her slipping away, too. She's been ill, and he's ill-equipped - 20-something slacker whose mother, once the crowd is gone, cuts him no slack.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JAMES WHITE")

CYNTHIA NIXON: (As Gail White) You need to grow up and get off of my couch.

ABBOTT: (As James White) Get off of your couch? When you were really sick, who fought for you? I'm your son, and that is what I'm supposed to do. And I'm happy to be here because I love you. But I need a break.

NIXON: (As Gail White) That's all you do, James, is take breaks.

ABBOTT: (As James White) Look, Nick is down in Mexico. I am going to go visit him. I am not going to drink. I am not going to smoke. I'm going to eat healthy, and I'm going to swim, and I'm going to work out. And when I get back, I will get a place and a job, but I I need to go away. And when I come back, I will be ready for life.

MONDELLO: Possibly, you have to be a 20-something underachiever to have this sound like a realistic plan. But writer-director Josh Mond isn't mocking his title character in "James White." He's setting up the family dynamic that will fuel the rest of the film. Mom, played by Cynthia Nixon, is still strong at this point, but she's facing a bumpy road ahead. A collapse while her son is off partying in Mexico takes a terrible toll, and Christopher Abbott's willfully immature James, so painfully needy himself, must gather up all the strength he's inherited from his mother to care for her...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JAMES WHITE")

ABBOTT: (As James White) Need anything before I go?

NIXON: (As Gail White) Just some water.

MONDELLO: ...As her world and reality part company.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JAMES WHITE")

NIXON: (As Gail White) Will you get your father for me?

ABBOTT: (As James White) What?

NIXON: (As Gail White) I want to talk to your dad.

MONDELLO: As I say, bumpy road ahead, and in "James White," never more moving than when the filmmaker shows his callow hero doing the best he can - when James helps his mom weather a particularly rough patch, for instance, with what amount to real-life bedtime stories, imagining happy scenes he's pretty sure she'll never see of James White all grown up. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.