Character studies following a twenty-something-year-old are for the most always examining a character go from an immature state to adulthood. In his directorial debut, Josh Mond avoids all of the clichés of this typical approach, which is one of the many aspects that helps to make James White one of the most compelling character studies to ever come out of the Sundance Film Festival. After James White first screened in Park City, Utah in January, all that happened to be discussed regarding the film was how great Christopher Abbot and Cynthia Nixon were here. While both performances lived up to the buzz, there was hardly any mention of Mond’s entirely original spin on the so-called “cancer drama,” which is why many were hesitant to fully buy into the tremendous hype coming out of Sundance.
What stands out most at first glance with James White was the way the Mond meticulously weaves the many facets of White’s life into one completely fluent 86-minute tour de force. James Whiteis not the “Sundance cancer drama” that many have the perception of it being. It is instead this masterfully crafted mosaic of a man’s struggle to cope with society. Mond avoids dwelling on any particular aspect of White’s life. On top of the struggle to deal with his mother’s intense battle with cancer, Mond also gives the viewer a tour of the many other struggles that White is currently going through on top of coping with his mother’s illness.
It is apparent that Mond has complete control over what he is doing from the very first few moments of the film. He perfectly utilizes his New York City-set landscape to help give his audience a sense of what White is like when he is not around the needy presence of his family. From the very first scene, Mond perfectly paints a portrait of James White. He opens up his film with a shot of White in a club as Danny Brown’s Smokin & Drinkin blares throughout a club. White, detached from everything that is going on in the club, puts in his earphones as Ray Charles’ Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying begins to drown out the music from the club. Mond sets this up in such a precise fashion that it immediately gives his audience a clear sense of the person that his titular character, James White is like, without even having him say a single word.
While dialogue is far from sparse in James White, Mond makes an attempt of showing the viewer the internal struggles that his protagonist is facing, rather than having him come out and shout his emotions to the audience, like so many debuts have done in the past. Mond is much more focused on having his audience observe the little mannerisms in White’s behavior, which helps elevate the film into something that requires the viewer’s intense focus from the opening shot to the last. A growing epidemic with independent filmmaking is that you can just have it on in the background and get just about the same reaction out of it as if you were hyper-focused and viewing it in a theater.
It is astonishing that Mátyás Erdély also shot Son of Saul. One of the biggest problems with that film is the cinematography. Erdély is trying so hard to emulate Béla Tarr’s trademark long takes that it loses all of the intended emotional power. In James White, Erdély’s work is quite the opposite. He shoots the majority of the film in intense close-ups that allow the viewer to get a clear understanding of the characters’ emotions throughout the course of the film. With the many obstacles that they face along the way, especially White, this technique allows the viewer to fully understand what kind of emotional toll these events are having on them.
The relationship between White and his mother (Cynthia Nixon) is something that very few films from the recent decade have been able to capture in as realistic of a fashion. We slowly get a sense of what kind of relationship the two have with each other. Mond does not feel the need to spend the first act of his film on unnecessary scenes of exposition. Instead, he gradually reveals more and more information about their relationship as the story progresses. What Josh Mond has brought to the table on his very first feature is more than what most directors bring to the table in all of their career. Not only is James White one of the finest directorial debuts in years, it is one of the handful of unequivocal masterworks to have come out of Sundance throughout the 21st century.