Dealing with illness at any time in a person’s life is difficult, but the younger the individual the more of a challenge it presents. Youth already carries the heavy burden of transitioning to adulthood and learning to care for oneself; add to that the need to nurse a loved one and life becomes very complex. Trying to find a balance can be problematic but also necessary. In James White, a twenty-something man attempts to care for his terminally ill mother while dealing with his own self-destructive behaviour.
James White (Christopher Abbott) never really got his life together after high school. Staying on his mother, Gail’s (Cynthia Nixon), couch was a matter of necessity for both of them as he needed a place to live and she needed help after being diagnosed with cancer. Several years later, her health has improved and he’s still using her sickness as an excuse. Finally motivated to lift himself up, he finds an apartment and a girlfriend, rekindles a friendship and focuses on his writing. But his mother’s relapse sends him spiralling once again, on an emotional and damaging rollercoaster he can’t afford to indulge.
None of the characters’ medical conditions are explored in-depth in the film. Gail has a severe type of and/or advanced cancer, but no specifics are ever revealed. James appears to suffer from some form of mental illness, possibly bipolar disorder based on one scene, but nothing is ever confirmed and the audience can only assume based on his erratic behaviour. Rather than focus on the minutia of their ailments, debut writer/director Josh Mond zeroes in on the emotional struggles James faces because of them. Around his mother James is mostly calm and compassionate, endeavouring to fulfill her every need particularly when she’s feeling her worst. In other situations he can prove to be a level-headed, intelligent person able to accept criticism and make meaningful connections with people. Then there’s times when he allows himself to lose control — often under the influence of drugs and alcohol — which causes him to become volatile to the point of scaring his friends.
Abbott and Nixon’s powerfully convincing portrayals of their respective characters make this a commanding movie. The script is a compelling, microscopic view of the relationship between this mother and son, and how it affects the rest of his life. However it’s their gripping performances that embrace viewers in every second of their turmoil. Abbott is intense but approachable, allowing his character to be both believably charming and upsetting. He portrays James as someone with so much potential and an equal amount of baggage holding him back that one cannot help but sympathize with him. Nixon is outstanding on Gail’s good days and even better on her bad ones. She plays the fading mother with such dignity and heart, it’s impossible for audiences to take their eyes off her when she’s on screen. And overall, the dynamic between the actors is realistic and touching.