By Danny King

James White
Dir. Josh Mond, U.S., The Film Arcade

James White (Christopher Abbott) is a loser. In one scene, as he and his closest friend, Nick (Scott Mescudi, a.k.a. Kid Cudi), sit at a bar—the camera lounging in front of them, framing the pair in a head-on two-shot—a couple of girls make innocuous small talk behind them. “Seriously, shut up!” James yells in their direction. The off-screen bartender tells him to calm down. “Nobody cares, you cunt!” James shouts at them some moments later. Then, with the camera now sitting behind James and Nick, one of the girls approaches from off-screen and pours her beer on James’s head. Enraged, he leaves the bar to have a smoke; from outside, he sees Nick mouthing at the bartender. James re-enters to come to his friend’s defense. He head-butts the bartender—probably knocking him out cold—and swipes a bottle of Jameson from behind the counter before racing out with Nick.

This altercation occurs around twelve minutes into James White. So far, this could be another upsetting Borderline Films production about an isolated young individual with violent tendencies. The three founders of Borderline—Antonio Campos, Sean Durkin, and Josh Mond—are friends who met at New York University and have since taken turns producing each other’s directorial debuts. Campos started with the 2008 Afterschool, in which an adolescent Ezra Miller captures the death of two prep-school students on camera, before moving on to the 2012 Simon Killer, in which Brady Corbet plays a disturbed, heartbroken American abroad in Paris who gets into an increasingly tangled and unstable relationship with a prostitute (Mati Diop). Durkin’s debut, the 2011 Martha Marcy May Marlene, introduced Elizabeth Olsen to the world and jumped temporally between her character’s past life in a dangerous cult and her present attempt to reintegrate into normal society. Each of these movies is simultaneously technically exceptional—exhibiting command of the 2.35:1 aspect ratio—and psychologically questionable: are Robert (Miller), Simon (Corbet), and Martha (Olsen) drawn with empathy and understanding, or are these movies just out to shock us?

Mond, making his feature debut with James White, seems at first to be dancing a similar line, with James acting out and creating uncomfortable, off-putting spectacles in places both public and private. But Mond’s context is more emotional and openly sincere—his main goal is not to construct an atmosphere of unease but to build empathy. The opening shot is a bleary extreme close-up on James as his face, dangling with sweat, swirls in and out of focus. He’s in a bar, or a club, and the red lighting and blitzed-out tempo resemble the long take in Simon Killer in which Corbet and two French girls dance to LCD Soundsystem’s “Dance Yrself Clean.” After a disorienting two minutes, James—his white earbuds playing Ray Charles’s “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying”—decides to leave. He downs his drink near the exit, pushes open the door, and—smack—steps into a flood of broad daylight. “Hey, good morning, boss,” an off-screen cabbie mutters as James settles in and requests a ride to “87th, between West End [and] Riverside.” At that location is the apartment of James’s mother, Gail (Cynthia Nixon), whom we learn is in the midst of hosting a shivah for her recently deceased ex-husband. When James arrives, Gail is speaking with a woman; when the woman looks at James and says, soulfully, “He really loved you, very much,” all James can muster is, “You want something to drink?” In the next scene, in which James cracks open a beer with a beloved family friend (Ron Livingston), it’s revealed that this woman was James’s father’s wife, and that James was only meeting her for the first time.

In most scenes, Mond is aiming for full-on subjectivity—with director of photography Mátyás Erdély’s camera clinging to James for dear life in close-up—so essential backstory details like this often slide in out of nowhere and take us by surprise. Nick, for instance, is first glimpsed, without context, standing over Gail in a very private moment, comforting her, his face buried in her hair. (That Nick is gay is another detail treated with minimal fanfare.) Characters come and go, disappear and reappear. The constant is James, who in a lesser movie might come off as an unpleasant parody of privileged twentysomething New York aimlessness. He has a beard and almost never wears anything other than a rumpled black hoodie. He wears a thin silver chain around his neck and has a few tattoos. He smokes, does drugs, picks fights, drinks too much, and talks in a nasally register that makes it sound as if he’s always waking up from a nap he didn’t need. He doesn’t have a job (“Right now, nothing’s really consistent,” is the sugarcoated way he phrases it to the Livingston character), and he’s been living on his mother’s Upper West Side couch for a couple years, flip-flopping between looking after Gail’s health and exploiting the financial freedom of the arrangement by indulging in reckless nights and nursing head-splitting mornings.

What redeems the character is that, in addition to being a kind of loser, James White is also a fighter. Not too long into the movie, Gail delivers the news that her cancer has continued to spread, and James proceeds to fight tooth and nail to make her better. As Gail’s behavior becomes more erratic—asking James to get his father, cleaning bookshelves at random hours, disappearing in the middle of the night—James sees fit to check her into the hospital. (When a paramedic asks Gail who the president is, she responds, “George Cocksucker Bush.”) He scorns the protocol of the hospital and petitions the busy workers for their undivided attention. When Gail soils herself, he goes on a rampage for clean sheets. The most heartrending sequence arrives later, back at the apartment, when James, left to his own devices, must find a way to reduce Gail’s fever overnight. He makes frustrated calls to the hospice hotline, to little avail. He sits her up on the bed and feeds her Vitamin Water. He rubs damp cloths on her forehead and tells her to take deep breaths (“exhale all the negative out”). He carries her to the bathroom and she leans her head on his chest as he speaks of an idyllic fantasy life in Paris. Mond stages these intimate mother-son moments in organic, understated long takes: the level of emotional investment—Nixon herself is a breast-cancer survivor, which perhaps accounts for some of the alarming power of her physical acting, and the movie was inspired in part by the death of Mond’s own mother from cancer—is such that shots of tremendous length and difficulty are presented without showiness or fuss.

Elsewhere, Mond films New York with a reliance on handheld shots that either lock in on James’s face or follow him from behind at the shoulders. (The only break from this style comes during James’s brief vacation to Mexico, when Mond pulls his camera back and switches to calm, roomy long shots with James residing at the center.) While James White’s intimate handheld look might appear anonymous when stacked up against the anxious spell of Campos and Durkin’s widescreen images, Mond seems more interested in generating an overall tempo rather than coming up with standalone embellishments like the protracted, tension-wringing zooms seen in Martha Marcy or Simon Killer. The movie syncs up with James’s internal clock: numerous scenes begin with him waking up—on his mom’s couch, on a stranger’s bed, in a hotel room, in a resort in Mexico—the camera sometimes moving with him as he sits up and reaches for the nearest source of hydration. There is a serious immersion into James’s day-in, day-out routine, and the level of specificity is convincing enough that—despite the movie’s compact, five-month timeline, from November to March—certain gestures imply a lifetime. When James, before a night out, tells his mom, “I’m here. But I’m going now,” the line lands with the painful reverberation of something that has been uttered many times over the years.

The contradiction of that line is reflective of the frustration James’s behavior provokes: after scenes that show him at his best—nestling a pillow underneath Gail’s head or walking her through a frightening episode in which her voice stops working—he’ll go on a bender and climb atop cars, screaming “I don’t want to go home!” while holding booze in a paper bag. But Mond and Abbott (providing the character with a regimen of heavy breathing) refuse to judge James. The character is neither overly vilified for his rudeness and immaturity nor unduly glorified for the profound loyalty he exhibits to his mom. He is just a confused kid from a broken home who makes mistakes but can do better: he picks up a New Yorker (Makenzie Leigh) in Mexico and then intimidates her high-school friends back in the city; he gets hammered and goes into a job interview at New York magazine the next morning wearing a T-shirt and smelling like alcohol; he takes his mother’s temperature and gives her a playful high-five when it drops a few degrees; he weeps at her bedside as she nears death. Unlike the previous Borderline productions, James White never feels like it’s building toward a rug-pulling revelation or an ambiguous finale meant to haunt the viewer. The movie is just this: a slow decline toward a new reality in which James White will have to do some reevaluating.