At the heart of the many flaws of James White is the simple fact that the film doesn’t need to exist. Josh Mond’s film is a bewildering exercise in cinema that feels a lot more like a careful curation of western cinephilia’s most overdone narrative arcs and exhausted character cliches than it does a refreshing and thought-provoking film. The only statement that James White could argue it conveys well is more of a meta-point about the nature of privilege in film: that another story of a wealthy, directionless, 20-something year-old who ‘has it all’ and then ‘loses it all’ is one worth telling. There might be an audience who empathise with a character like James White and his deeply seated apathy stewed in moral indifference, but honestly, there are plenty of films that already exist, perfectly capable of fulfilling whatever narcissistic cinematic tendencies they might have.
Things kick off with James coming back from an all-night bender after the death of his father, returning an apartment filled with family friends providing support. This turns out to be more alienating than comforting for James and he eventually kicks everyone out in what is initially framed as a moment of grief – later, this sequence demonstrates itself to be more in line with his normal personality traits and doesn’t really seem that out of character at all. In a plot that most cinemagoers have seen hefty portions of in other films before, James tries to escape his problems, fleeing to Mexico, where he drops acid with a young girl and couples with her. Later in the film, it’s revealed that she’s in high school, something that doesn’t seem to perturb James’ character much at all. Thankfully, Mond simply removes her as a character by moving the film along a teleology of James’ increasing isolation as his mother also gets sick. The second half of James White feigns sincerity, however its expression feels more like audience emotional manipulation than anything else. We’re pushed to develop some sort of sympathy for James through a cancer subplot which is the sole device used to achieve it. We’re shown that James is fairly unlikeable, lacks any direction despite extreme wealth, and is deeply apathetic at the start of the film. The fact that Mond has to kill both of James’ parents in an attempt to make us feel the slightest concern for the dull-written and aggressively two-dimensional character really calls into question what purpose a film like this really intends to serve.
James White isn’t an entirely broken film. Matyas Erdely’s camera works like a magnet for vivid uses of light and careful framing, resulting in a well-polished final product that can at least attest to looking fantastic throughout its duration. The cinematography in general helps broaden a lot of the on-screen atmosphere that is finds itself so let down by the performances. It captures the crispness of New York, releases the tension it builds up throughout the brief scenes in Mexico, and creates a strong sense of visual intimacy between James and his mother. It’s not particularly innovative camerawork, but works well in line with the nature of the film; it conjures up palpable contrasts between James’ crumbling life and the well-off and comfortable figures that surround him at the start of the film.
There’ll be audiences that respond to James White as an on-point examination of privilege and class in America, however, it feels throughout that Mond’s work is really just ticking off the minimum obligation checkpoints in making such a film rather than offering anything particularly refreshing, insightful or affecting. There are plenty of films far more wide-reaching, relatable and perceptive around these aforementioned issues; they are films that present well-established and complex characters, unique and thought-provoking plot lines, and envoke emotional responses from their audience in far more subtle and intricate ways. James White’s protagonist is lazy, cold, and difficult to relate to. If you can give the film on the whole one thing, it’s that it does an okay job at reflecting the same traits.
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