Writer-director Josh Mond makes a shattering debut with an atypical take on the dreaded “cancer movie”, putting Christopher Abbot and Cynthia Nixon through the wringer and teasing out the best performances of their respective careers in the process.
James White (Abbot), a young New Yorker, uses drugs, alcohol sex and violence as a crutch to cope with not only the recent passing of his estranged father, but the stage 4 cancer diagnosis of his mother, Gail (Nixon). As his mother grows weaker, he attempts to curb his destructive behaviour and be more present in her life.
An opening 3-minute sequence of a bleary-eyed, drunk James emerging from a nightclub into the New York morning light may be a perfect primer for what lies ahead, but there is much more to this film than the mere misery porn that the premise suggests. Cancer, in essence, is just one part of the film, with as much time being devoted to James’ own journey, peppered with some unexpected (and much needed) comic relief early on.
Mond should be praised for an unfussed but nevertheless disciplined directorial job, staying well out of the way and letting the actors act, often employing long takes to devastating effect.
Meanwhile Abbot, an on-the-rise actor with a few memorable roles to his name (perhaps most prominently on HBO’s Girls), is called upon to be almost uncomfortably intimate with Mond’s camera, his face closely focused on in almost every scene. There’s rage, immaturity and even true decency begging to bubble up underneath it all, all exceptionally well-wrought by the young actor, and it’s simply refreshing to see a movie of this type dare to present us with a protagonist who is only part-likable.
If Nixon has a somewhat smaller role than expected, she’s still magnificent, not merely settling for leaning into the physical commands of the role but also mustering a believable frustration and charm in the face of adversity that’s tough to resist. If tears are shed by film’s end, it’s a testament to their devastating combined work, further aided by fine support from Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi, who plays James’ loyal, level-headed pal Nick, and also provides the film’s musical score.
Its prickly, ambiguous and even provocative conclusion may distress some audiences expecting something tidier, but it avoids the trite sentiment even many great movies of this type deign to. Instead, it leaves the viewer with plenty to ponder as the title character spills off the edges of the frame and is spat back out into the world. A terrific picture and easily one of 2015’s best.
James White is on limited release in US cinemas now