If cities are character actors, New York plays two roles: the wingman for romances with cultured hipsters, or a desolate backdrop for loners who don’t fit the “New Yorker” label. The capitalist capitol of North America has birthed rom-coms like When Harry Met Sally and social commentaries such as Taxi Driver, while, even this year, The Intern portrayed the Big Apple as a sweet pie of opportunity, devoid of any real diversity. Artificial representations perpetuate “cinematic gentrification;” they push the poor and the ostracized to the edges, only occasionally showcasing them as stereotypes.
Gabriel, Time Out Of Mind and Heaven Knows What – all a part of a movement of new independent films that are told from the perspective of the disenfranchised in New York – have brought the unseen margins to the center; the forgotten minorities are now showcased at the forefront. Josh Mond’s directorial debut, James White, is another small and truthful portrait of the city.
In the first scene, we glimpse a dark sub-culture. James (Christopher Abbott) is inebriated in a bar, dancing, stumbling and flirting. The place – dark, but lit in vibrant neon hues – is packed. Stumbling out of the door, the bass-heavy beat transitions to mundane sounds: cars honking and people walking on their lunch break. The mid-day sun brightly overwhelms our eyes.
James jumps in the back of a cab and wakes up in front of his mother’s apartment. Inside, there is a home brimming with acquaintances; his father has just died and he has shown up late and drunk to a commemorational lunch. With every passing moment, we sense the pressure mounting, as though he is carrying a stack of bricks on his head, slowly compressing him downwards. He is depressed. His mother has terminal cancer. He is unable to care for himself.
Shot almost entirely with filled frames and tight close-ups, James suffocates in New York. If he could even hold onto a job, he still couldn’t get one. The hospital is overfilled and understaffed, and although the setting is barely visible – often left exclusively to corners of the widescreen frame – it presses against James from all sides.
It’s only when he escapes to a Mexican resort that there is reprieve. Done primarily in long shots with extreme amounts of negative space, we get a sense of relaxation. The crowded New York streets have led him to vacant beaches and unoccupied roads, but after a few nights with a girl who also lives in New York, James receives a tragic phone call. His mother’s cancer has spread with a fury; she needs him to come back. The vast spaces have become claustrophobic, he has been squashed into small specks on the screen.
Other recent and stylistically similar films, László Nemes’ Son Of Saul and Kazik Radwanski’s How Heavy This Hammer, maintain tight compositions for their entire running time, but James White is the only one to add variety, breaking up the potential monotony and offering the audience and character a brief break. For a film that is primarily gritty and realistic, Josh Mond doesn’t utilize his camera and compositions like a fly on the wall. He is visually expressing an internal unease.
Counter-balanced with Christopher Abbott’s enormous and raw performance (one of the best of the year), every scene is like a balloon inflating for the actor to pop. Large performances tend to feel showy – we often sense the artifice – but with Abbott, we never catch him acting. He has embodied every cell of this man’s nerves.
There is an essential difference between James White and other 2015 films that have showcased a New York underbelly; this one traces a man born into the middle class. He is broke and lives on his mother’s couch but he is not indebted and living on the street. He drinks too much and cheats on his girlfriend but still remains partly functional. He is not Richard Gere’s character in Time Out Of Mind or one of the junkies in Heaven Knows What, but he is well on his way.
Although there is a tight focus on James (literally), Josh Mond has crafted a relatively plotless story that spans months, chronicling the mother’s failing bout with cancer. James White becomes not just a profound character study but also an introspection into the lives who support the main character: the dying mother, a long-time best friend, and the girlfriend he met in Mexico. Throughout the months, these characters drift in and out of the story, leaving us to wonder if they’ve abandoned him. He doesn’t understand their concern. They have been mostly reduced to the background.
Born and raised in the city, James is, in a way, an archetypal New Yorker. He is a writer. He is cultured. He seeks love. Yet he is precisely the kind of unattractive character we never see at the movies. Even in the alternative films of Noah Baumbach, he would have probably been neglected. In our cynical times, we still view the city, historically, as a place of opportunity, acceptance and happiness. Brooklyn and The Walk are recent examples, yet as James Gray taught us with The Immigrant, perhaps these representations are nothing more than cultural amnesia. Characters like James are being gentrified at the cinema, pushed out from our frame of view. We walk past them every day, and perhaps there is little we can do. But our movies have turned our heads away for us.