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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

In James White, Christopher Abbott gave us one of indie film’s most indelible pricks

Illustration for article titled In James White, Christopher Abbott gave us one of indie film’s most indelible pricks
Screenshot: James White

Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: Antonio Campos and Sean Durkin both have new movies coming out, so we’re looking back on other projects released by their production company, Borderline Films.

James White (2015)

It was a genuine shock when, at the height of its popularity, up-and-comer Christopher Abbott bailed on HBO’s Girls, leaving his character’s promising reunion with Allison Williams’ Marnie unconsummated. Rumors abounded that Abbott had creative differences with creator and star Lena Dunham, conflicts he then clarified in a 2013 interview. “The world that Lena wrote was very real, especially in New York,” Abbott said. “But it wasn’t as relatable for me on a personal level. It’s not that I only like to play roles I know to a T, but there’s something satisfying about playing parts where you really relate to the characters.” Abbott, who moved to the city after growing up in a working-class Connecticut neighborhood, wanted something grittier. Dutiful Girls boyfriend Charlie was, after all, a bit of a square.


So he turned up as an addict on HBO’s Enlightened, a thug in J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year, and something even darker in Mona Fastvold’s The Sleepwalker. And then came 2015’s James White, which offered the actor a role perfectly pitched between the privileged milieu of Girls and the scuffed-up kicks of his subsequent efforts. James White is, at the risk of being reductive, the trust fund kid from hell.

Directed by Josh Mond, a Borderline producer making his feature debut, James White follows an NYC twentysomething after he loses his mostly absent father—and, it’s implied, his personal ATM—and stares down the cancer that’s slowly consuming his mother, Gail (Cynthia Nixon), who has no other family to care for her. James, however, is a poor excuse for a caretaker—when he’s not drunk or stoned, he’s picking fights alongside his kind, but enabling, pal Nick (Kid Cudi) and disappearing to Mexico so he can “take a break.” After that, he’ll get a job, his own place, and, though it goes unsaid, the will to actually be there for Gail. She doesn’t buy it, though: “All you do is take breaks.” And it’s true; James can only witness the grim face of reality for so long before he ducks into a bar with the other denizens of the night. “I don’t wanna go home,” Nick chants as the pair traipse through the city. Going home means growing up.

Stories of arrested adolescence, especially as they pertain to privileged white shit stirrer, are nothing new, but Mond is less interested in a narrative of self-actualization than he is in one of tortured effort. James doesn’t need reminding of his station in life, nor of the innumerable opportunities he’s ignored and suffocated throughout his youth. In the film’s emotional centerpiece, James forces himself to sit with his emaciated mother through a torturous night of sickness. Her head on his chest, he comforts her with a portrait of the life he knows she wishes he’d created. “Thank you for giving me this life and helping me create this for myself,” he says of the fantasy, a subtle assurance that his failures are not hers.

It’s a moment of quiet sweetness for a character that spends most of the film buried in noise. In the opening scene, a sweaty Abbott plugs headphones in his ears as he flits around a blaring dance club, the disparate sounds—Ray Charles on one end, Danny Brown on the other—crashing and colliding inside his coke-addled brain. This queasy drift between tenderness and volatility is a microcosm of Abbott’s performance. It could all grow tiresome with another actor, but Abbott’s live-wire magnetism makes it hard to take your eyes off him. Upon James White’s release, the actor drew comparisons to Harvey Keitel and the kinds of characters you’d find in a Cassavetes movie, which sounds lofty until you see him roar through tears after clobbering a smart-aleck high schooler in the mouth. You won’t like James White. You won’t want to comfort him or hang out with him. You will, however, be yanked into his orbit, rocky though it may be.


Availability: James White is currently streaming for free on Vudu and Tubi, as well as on Amazon Prime.

Randall Colburn is The A.V. Club's Internet Culture Editor. He lives in Chicago, occasionally writes plays, and was a talking head in Best Worst Movie, the documentary about Troll 2.

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