If cities are character actors, New York usually plays one of two roles: the wingman for romances with cultured hipsters, or a desolate backdrop for loners who don’t fit the “New Yorker” label. The capitalist capitol of North America has birthed rom-coms like When Harry Met Sally and social commentaries such as Taxi Driver, while, even this year, The Intern portrayed the Big Apple as a sweet pie of opportunity, devoid of any real diversity.
Artificial representations perpetuate what I like to call “cinematic gentrification.” They push the poor and the ostracized to the edges, only occasionally showcasing them as stereotypes. Josh Mond’s directorial debut, James White, is a small yet truthful portrait of the city.
In the first scene, we glimpse a dark subculture: James (Christopher Abbott) is inebriated in a bar, dancing, stumbling, and flirting. The place — dark, but lit in vibrant neon hues — is packed. Eventually, he stumbles out the door, and the mid-day sun brightly overwhelms our eyes.
James jumps into the back of a cab and wakes up in front of his mother’s apartment. Inside, the home brims with acquaintances: his father has just died and James has shown up late and drunk to a commemorative lunch. With every passing moment, we sense the pressure mounting, as though he is carrying a stack of bricks on his head, slowly compressing him downwards.
Even if he could hold onto a job, he can’t seem to get one. The hospital is overfilled and understaffed, and although the setting is barely visible — often left exclusively to corners of the widescreen frame — it presses against James from all sides.
Only when he escapes to a Mexican resort is there reprieve. Filmed primarily in long shots with extreme amounts of negative space, we get a sense of relaxation from these scenes. The crowded New York streets have led James to vacant beaches and unoccupied roads, but after a few nights with a girl who also lives in New York, James receives a tragic phone call. His mother’s cancer has spread with a fury; she needs him to come back. The vast spaces have become claustrophobic, and he is once again squashed into small specks on the screen.
Although there is a tight focus on James (literally), Josh Mond has crafted a relatively plotless story that spans months, chronicling the mother’s failing bout with cancer. James White becomes not just a profound character study but also an introspection into the lives who support the main character: the dying mother, a long-time best friend, and the girlfriend he met in Mexico. Over a span of several months, these characters drift in and out of the story, leaving us to wonder if they’ve abandoned James entirely, and leaving him not understanding their concern.
Counter-balanced with Abbott’s enormous, raw performance, every scene is like a balloon inflating, waiting for the actor to pop it. Large performances tend to feel showy — audiences often sense the artifice — but with Abbott, we never catch him acting. He has embodied every cell of this man’s nerves.
Born and raised in the city, James is, in a way, an archetypal New Yorker. He is a writer. He is cultured. He seeks love. Yet he is precisely the kind of unattractive person never seen at the movies. Characters like James are being gentrified at the cinema, pushed out from our frame of view. We walk past them every day, and perhaps there is little we can do, but our movies have turned our heads away for us.