‘James White’ Is an Unflinching Examination of Parental Death That Offers No Easy Answers

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Before you see debut director Josh Mond’s James White, the title — simply its lead character’s first and last name — may not resonate, and may even seem a rote choice for a character study.After seeing the film, though, the name will start to creep up on you. The name itself is one of the fundamental signifiers of everything that’s called into question for the protagonist — someone who experiences the loss of two parents throughout the film. Given that a name is a parent’s first dictation of identity to a child, it’s one that seems, suddenly, vulnerable to being vacated of meaning here, in this film about someone whose adult identity has been entirely subsumed by a dying parent.

Most notably, the unremittingly gut-wrenching double tragedy of James White provides a rare example of a film about parental death where growth is not an absolute, where negation is just as likely as affirmation for the young protagonist. This is relatively rare in a world where death-of-parent narratives are generally used as a study into the growth of those left behind

There’s a very obvious — and somewhat disconcerting — reason why the plots of, for example, Disney films are so often catalyzed by the death of a parent. Disney producer Don Hahn once theorized bluntly that “the movies are 80 or 90 minutes long, and Disney films are about growing up… In shorthand, it’s much quicker to have characters grow up when you bump off their parents.” Given the relationship between young characters’ emboldened journeys and the passing of their progenitors, it’s a wonder parents don’t come out of these films fearing their own eventual symbolic irrelevance in their children’s lives.

Beyond Disney, plenty of other movies — some examples are The Descendants, Stepmom, Garden State, Pieces of April, Life as a House, Wild and Ikiru (the last two being by far the best among these) use a dying parent as more than a plot point or even a tacitly twisted rite of passage. In these film, one of the predominant killers of parents is the slower and more crushingly banalized ailment we see in James White: cancer.

Still, even these films are stories founded on, or leading to, redemption, healing, or even affirmation, via cancer and/or death. There’s nothing particularly insidious about this: one would like to think, and one often finds, that people do continue to exist outside of their tragedies. But go to any loss-counseling website and they’ll tell you, “It’s common for people to have sadness, pain, anger, bouts of crying, and a depressed mood after a loved one dies,” and that in one in five cases, this will lead to clinical depression. Nowhere will they assure that Julia Roberts will take over where Susan Sarandon left off, or that a dangerous, self-isolating hike will ultimately save you.

James White is different. It begins with a startling gesture of disorientation, as James (Christopher Abbott, who’ll finally be more than “attractive dude who quit Girls”) leaves a pulsing nightclub — only to reveal a very pulseless shot of broad daylight. Even before we find out where he’s going — straight from the club to a midmorning memorial for his father, who died before the fim started — James White depicts its protagonist in a place that’s at odds with the rest of the world.

James’s hedonistic tendencies have been deemed “self-destructive” across the critical board. But it seems the film — through these images, through the title, and of course through the plot itself — is actually positing a dread of not having any sense of self left to destroy, or do anything to, following James’ mother’s death. For, as the story reveals, for the last five years, James has been living with and taking care of Gail, who has cancer (she’s played with meticulous and merciless specificity of her character’s deterioration — as well as her humor, her wit and her flaws — by Cynthia Nixon).

We find out that at the start of the film, Gail’s cancer is in remission — but, almost immediately following the unexpected death of his father, her cancer recurs, and her physical (and to an extent mental) descent is mirrored by James’ own. As her condition worsens, James begins starting bar brawls and treating himself more recklessly than it suggests he already previously did. When this manchild is finally completely orphaned, what will he do without his mother as a reference, a purpose?

There are three strategic scenes with which the film surprises us [if you’re worried about spoilers, they very much ensue, but know that the trailer likewise betrays them] with the utterly dire state of things in James’ and Gail’s lives, and brutally resists affirmation: the first where you think James is just leaving a nightclub but is actually going to a memorial. Then, at the memorial, we have no idea that Gail herself is recovering from an illness, as she’s wearing a convincing wig. (The reveal is in the next scene, where the shortness of her hair bears more significance than a change of style).

Then, James is about to embark on one of those finding-oneself-following-loss type of trips that you see in Wild. Except he’s a coddled hedonist, so his version is spending inheritance money and going to a resort in Mexico. The self-discovery phase of his first trip is cut short with the third blow the film deals: Gail calls him from Mexico and says he needs to come home immediately. Her cancer has returned. The film almost deliberately shatters the notion of the “self-help/discovery vacation” to immerse James in the grueling, months-long process of his second loss.

As he sees his mother begin to forget presidents, lose motor abilities, and need help using the bathroom, there’s no doubt whatsoever where James White is going with his mother’s cancer struggle. The doubt is whether James himself will survive it, and Gail consistently critiques him for living in extremes of sweetness, benevolence and responsibility or brutishness and fecklessness — and absolutely nothing in between. His own personality, it seems, has been bifurcated by the complications of needing to be there for his mother while also being chastised for being something of a Hannah Horvath (sorry, Christopher Abbott) as far as professional pursuits go.

His personality is also divided by place: in the house, he’s responsible and caring, but in the outside world, he’s something of a monster. It’s a structured divide that is directly related to his relationship with his mother, and the film’s final shot suggests uncertainty about which side of James’s personality will prevail once she’s not there to act as the boundary between them.

When Gail finally passes, James leaves the apartment and goes into the outside world — where, let’s recall, he traditionally sucks as a human — and lights a cigarette, and the film ends. This is the portrait of someone suddenly stripped of the person who defined him, and the 20-something year old orphan becomes the audience’s, and his own, blank slate. The way you read the final shot depends on how you read the title in that it similarly isolates him: you can see it as a victorious insistence of eventual personal growth and actualization, or, conversely, as the symbol of a self that’s lost its given meaning or definition: “James White” may suddenly become gibberish.

James White emerges as a film that’s not about recovering from grief. Instead, it’s a document of how the absolute worst period of a person’s life can be used to comprehend and work through something society would otherwise prefer to forget, or to at least see through the teleological, three-act lens of actual growth. Mond, it seems, had to make a movie that was all the first act, just to ensure that grief itself wasn’t ignored: it’s hard to understand something you, and the rest of society, refuse to see.

This is not your usual feel-good movie, nor is it your usual feel-bad movie. In fact, it may be a feel-your-absolute-worst movie, and at times, that can be immensely monotonous. But thankfully, it is only 80-something minutes of feeling dreadful, and if nothing else, it’s a refreshing example of death as more than just a convenient narrative device. The idea of James “finding himself” through loss remains the film’s question far more than its answer.