When we first see James White (played by Christopher Abbott), he’s zoned out in a Manhattan nightclub, listening to the beats of the club’s sound system but also tuning into the dreamier music coming through his headphones. He gobbles some booze while other substances presumably course through his bloodstream.
The close-up view of this indie film’s title character is a useful intro. James will be our point of view for the remaining 85 minutes; for better or worse — and it gets worse — the world we see is his.
This early scene in “James White” isn’t over. Groggy, James stumbles out of the club into morning, and takes a cab to what turns out to be his father’s funeral gathering. Nobody seems too surprised by his disheveled appearance — they already know this guy.
It would be hard enough for James to get his act together, as we expect he will try to do, in the wake of his father’s death. But his mother (Cynthia Nixon), long divorced from James’ father, is sick with cancer.
Writer-director Josh Mond plays out a few months in James’s life, as his protagonist keeps intending to clean up his life. First a trip to Mexico is supposed to solve things, then a promising job prospect, then — well, it’s always the next thing.
Meanwhile, his mother gets sicker. This leads to some powerful scenes in the latter part of the movie.
Part of the wallop there is Cynthia Nixon’s performance. Best known for her role in the “Sex and the City” franchise, Nixon has had a long career as a distinguished stage actress, and she brings her well-honed skills to this demanding part.
The movie also has effective roles for Scott Mescudi (aka music dynamo “Kid Cudi,” who also worked on the film’s soundtrack) and Ron Livingston. But every scene is carried by Abbott, a young actor known for some indie work and a couple of seasons on “Girls.”
Abbott’s performance is serious and committed; James White is constantly fuming in an interior dispute with the rest of the world. The film’s best scenes — like a fight in a bar that erupts out of nowhere — have an explosive quality that Abbott embodies very well.
Like the film, the performance is strong, if not subtle. But that’s why “James White” packs a gut-level punch.
“James White” (3 stars)
An indie character study fueled by strong performances: Christopher Abbott as a fuming Manhattanite in the midst of self-destructing, and Cynthia Nixon as his sickly mother. The movie’s not subtle, but its best scenes have a truly explosive quality.
Rating: R, for language, nudity
Showing: Sundance Cinemas