James White ✮✮✮

Man Under the Influence

by Glenn Lovell

Josh Mond, producer of “Martha Macy May Marlene” and “Simon Killer,” makes a more than promising directorial debut with “James White,” an intense but finally uplifting look at a wayward son who digs deep and finds direction when his mother is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Shot in a warts-and-all style reminiscent of early John Cassavetes — Mond opens on a tight shot of his title character and stays on his face for a full five minutes — this New York-set indie may be light on narrative twists but it’s rich in emotional outbursts, nerve-fraying confrontations.

It also proves an important showcase for its three stars — Christopher Abbott as the dutiful but misguided son who can’t quite get up the energy to launch his writing career, Cynthia Nixon as the mother who can’t let go untiljames-white she’s reasonably sure of her son’s future, and Scott Mescudi as the likable best friend-guardian who counsels, “You need to get your shit together.” A rapper of some note, Mescudi is also billed as the film’s composer. “Sex in the City’s” Nixon is so good as the teacher-mother who lapses in and out of chemo-induced fits of paranoia that she should be remembered come Oscar nomination time.

Ron Livingston (“The Conjuring,” “Vacation”) pops up as a family friend who suggests that the aspiring writer interview for his magazine. James might as well turn up in clown makeup — the meeting is that cringe-worthy.

As it should be, this character study rests squarely on Abbott’s shoulders. He’s front and center 99 percent of the time, rolling from embarrassing tirades to mean, alcohol- and drug-induced belligerence to genuine concern. Too much of any one of these emotions would upset the balance and cause this project to founder as too grim or too sentimental. Abbott, in the end, makes us care about a guy who, when away from Mom, works overtime to earn his friends’ abuse.

Nixon and Abbott are especially good in the closing moments when James attempts to take his ravaged mother’s mind off the pain by imagining an idyllic alternate existence. James says he can see himself recast in the fairy tale as “a kind and loving man.” Mother smiles, knowingly.

JAMES WHITE ✮✮✮ With Christopher Abbott, Cynthia Nixon, Scott Mescudi, Ron Livingston. Directed, written by Josh Mond. 87 min. R (for profanity, drug use, slight nudity)

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