The first five minutes or so of James White show our title character (played by Christopher Abbott) moving through a Manhattan nightclub, boozy and lost, with music in his ear buds competing with the throbbing club bass all around him. With the handheld camera shaky and yet persistently framed close on Abbott’s tabula rasa face, the audience feels at once unbalanced and anchored, stressed and serene. There is chaos, noise, drugs, anger, exhaustion all around, and yet interspersed through it all are moments of peace.
This tension is as present in the ambience of the film as it is in the character of James White himself. He is a troubled kid, economically privileged but stunted in his growth, a version of the couch-hopping urban twenty something we’ve seen in recent Noah Baumbach films (especially Frances Ha). He’s plagued by demons of all sorts, but his father’s recent death and his mother’s (Cynthia Nixon) cancer, which is slowly killing her, push him even more into the abyss. Still, something in his eyes reveals an innocence and goodness that simply needs a bit of guidance.
The directorial debut of Josh Mond (producer of Martha Marcy May Marlene), James White makes a parallel between the noisy maelstrom of its twentysomething protagonist and that of his geographic setting: New York City. Notable throughout the film are contrasts in pacing and sound, with short, intense bursts of hedonistic New York life (hotel room parties, clubs, bar fights, drugs) juxtaposed with long scenes of quiet connection (usually between James and his mother).
These quiet interior scenes are sometimes punctuated with aural reminders of the chaos held just at bay: buzzing or ringing of iPhones, distant city ...1