James White opens with its title character's drifting restlessly through a club, his ear buds pulsing music, sweat on his brow. The camera, as insistent as a gnat, tracks the bearded twentysomething as he downs drinks and moves around the dark, throbbing bar, maybe in the company of a woman (maybe not - they're not talking), and finally emerging on the New York street.
It's daylight. And this stark study in self-destruction is underway.
An accomplished and compelling film by writer/director Josh Mond, James White is also pretty much a bummer. Played with rattling energy by Christopher Abbott, James is a writer who doesn't write, a smart, single dude who does singularly stupid stuff. Drugs. Bar fights.
He has also had to help his mother, Gail (Cynthia Nixon), through a bout with cancer, getting her prescriptions, taking her for treatments. She's in remission now. He sleeps on the couch in her apartment. Nick (Scott Mescudi), his best buddy, drops by.
Mond breaks his film into chapters: "November," "December," "January, "February," "March." It's in December, after sitting shiva for his father (long estranged), that James decides he needs to get out of town. Mexico. He'll meditate, stop taking drugs, "get healthy," get his act together - and return to New York ready to take a magazine job promised to him by a family friend.
Guess what. At the beach resort, James picks up a high school girl from New York (Makenzie Leigh). They drop acid. Nick materializes (he has got a job there). They party.
Then, Ma calls. The cancer is back. Stage 4. James is on the next plane home.
Will helping his mother through her steep decline (dementia, incontinence, crippling pain) bring James some kind of focus in his life? Will the responsibility turn things around?
Do we care?
That's the problem - my problem, anyway - with James White. Does the portrait of a selfish, screwed-up guy - even a fully realized portrait - warrant our attention, our consideration? Are we supposed to recognize ourselves in James, or recognize the fact that anyone is capable of veering off this way - given the right (or wrong) set of circumstances? What's the equation here? Family? Fate? The wiring in the brain?
James himself might have some good ideas on the topic, but he might not be able to articulate them. Depends on how much drugs and drink and sex he has been up to the night before.
James White *** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Josh Mond. With Christopher Abbott, Cynthia Nixon, Makenzie Leigh, Scott Mescudi, Ron Livingston. Distributed by the Film Arcade.
Running time: 1 hour, 28 mins.
Parent's guide: R (sex, nudity, drugs, violence, profanity, adult themes).
Playing at: Ritz Bourse.EndText