James White is in trouble. His father has just died, and he’s reeling outward in a spiral of alcohol-fuelled despair; he finds it difficult to think about others; his own selfishness keeps dragging him down despite his better intentions. But unfortunately, his horridness bleeds into the movie itself, making James White – yes, he’s so obsessed with himself that he named the movie after himself – something close to bruising psychological torment. And not the kind you enjoy, either.
First-time feature director Josh Mond – known as the producer of the astonishing Martha Marcy May Marlene – takes a deeply personal take on grief, love and sacrifice in James White. To a certain extent, the film acts as a vessel for his own emotions, since one of his parents suffered the same fate as James does; his character is constantly face-palms-deep in hurt, pinballing between attempts at leading a sane life, and falling into another sinkhole of unbelievably bad luck – and as the film progresses, the gaping pit between his feet grows scarily wide.
The movie’s biggest problem is it’s own self-obsession. It doesn’t matter that James is selfish, abusive, or near-pathologically intent on causing his own destruction (i.e., not very likeable); what matters is we’re given no reason to care about him. Thanks to truly superb work from Christopher Abbot, James is a three-dimensional, free-floating human being, but it’s Mond’s framing of his performance that causes a blip in the circuitry. It’s clear that Mond is content in merely showing us bad things happening to White, and White saying and doing bad things in reaction to them; the film doesn’t construct its own internal grammar to give James’s experiences real lasting meaning. And while James is a well-rounded character, and his mother (a heartbreaking Cynthia Nixon) a moving portrait of self-abandon, others are ignored almost entirely. Scott Mescudi and Makenzie Leigh’s characters – best friend and girlfriend respectively – fade in and out of the storyline with little consequence, acting as foibles and guards to James rather than living, breathing entities of their own. Again, if their evanescence is supposed to be some kind of comment on James’ mental state – where he ignores and uses even those closest to him – its effect is entirely negligible, again thanks to the lack of a unique logic the film never builds up.
At the centre of this frustratingly one-note, uncalibrated piece is the core of a character screaming for catharsis, and he’s never allowed to come close. As he’s relentlessly punished by the rapid dwindling of his prospects, we too feel like we’re being abused for no crime greater than sitting down and watching a movie. Great films – simply good ones, in fact – leave you feeling as if you’ve learned something – emotional, spiritual – from the struggles portrayed in them. James White has only a sour aftertaste.