In the mid-2000s, music critic Andrew Harrison coined the term “landfill indie,” used to describe the plethora of samey British guitar bands that received a major label push in the wake of the meteoric rise of Arctic Monkeys; wherein the deliberate crafting of groups into bland, crowd-pleasing conformists veered so-called indie music away from being independently spirited to being an actual mainstream pop genre, rife with discernible tropes to easily tick off a checklist. The term could so easily be applied to American independent cinema from the early 2000s onwards. There’s a reason “Sundance movie” gets bandied about by so many, as “indie” has become something of its own mainstream genre in the wake of Fox Searchlight’s success with Little Miss Juno and the Dying Garden State.
James White isn’t a Fox Searchlight release, but based on logline alone it sounds like a potential rehash of the stock Sundance movie beats and clichés: a white twenty-something New Yorker, who happens to be an aspiring writer, struggles with familial estrangement and his self-destructive tendencies. Leave your preconceptions at the door, however, for James White is a far cry from a Zach Braff or Josh Radnor ego trip. Closer in spirit, tone and execution to John Cassavetes, the arguable godfather of American independent cinema (at least in terms of the white guys), Josh Mond’s directorial debut has more raw emotion and authenticity than a hundred examples of Sundance landfill.
This is Mond’s feature debut as a director, but he’s actually been a part of the band of producers behind Martha Marcy May Marlene and Simon Killer, and his film is similarly concerned and stylistically evocative regarding the extreme emotional states brought about by disorientating predicaments and damaging conflicts of communication. Unlike Martha Marcy in particular, James White never feels like it’s building towards an ambiguous denouement or revelatory back-story reveal. In the Cassavetes mould, the story often feels like life itself: unembellished, disjointed, euphoric one moment and draining the next. What the two films do share is a tendency towards lingering close-ups on faces for crucial character development, and that they are both anchored by a blistering break-out performance at their centre.
Christopher Abbott (who had a small role in Martha Marcy and is probably best known for playing Charlie in Girls) gives a blazing performance that’s both similar in a lot of ways to Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy, but also crucially different. Both actors have great gifts with using tortured eyes to convey depths of their inner turmoil and demons, though Abbott’s eponymous James is a more abrasive chatter than Olsen’s cult escapee. His disorientation comes not from what he has been through in a past that’s coming back to haunt him, but with a present that’s constantly throwing him for a loop. His estranged father has just passed away, and he’s just discovered at the wake that the man re-married. His mother (Cynthia Nixon, heartbreaking) is still recovering from cancer, only for it to return in a horrific fashion not even halfway through the film. He justifies erratic lashings out as systemic of his shock and grief, but it’s suggested that emotional immaturity has long been one of his vices.
“All you do is take breaks,” his mother says of the young man who struggles to even show up to a job interview in a presentable state and on time, yet alone care for another human, one whose likely departure from this mortal coil will leave him independent regardless of whether or not he’s adequately learned what it actually means to be an adult. In a way, James White is like a dark riff on the man-child formula, but it also works as a devastating exploration of death and decay. The two strands fully coerce in the film’s most memorable, haunting and moving sequence: a bathroom-set long-take in which James, both unable to run off this time but also unable to truly help, briefly consoles his mother and alleviates her pain with a tale of a future in which he’s finally got his act together and eventually started his own family, and where she’s still there to observe it all.
This sequence recalls a similar, albeit more extravagant one in Xavier Dolan’s Mommy, and it takes place right before the more Amour-like horrors of his mother’s demise take centre stage. James is never glorified for moments like this, nor is he vilified for his often contemptuous behaviour elsewhere. We get both the lover and fighter sides of the man, because there’s no clear-cut formula to how to cope with the existential terrors the character deals with here. This is why James White isn’t cookie-cutter, landfill indie. It’s real.
Josh Slater-Williams (@jslaterwilliams) is a freelance writer based in England. Alongside writing for Vague Visages, he is a regular contributor to independent British magazine The Skinny and has written for Little White Lies magazine, VODzilla.co, The Film Stage, and PopOptiq.