The coming-of-age film usually conjures images of tweens and teens grappling with the biggies of adolescence: Young love, surviving school, leaving home for the first time.
But the best kinds of these stories break that mold, in both the types of characters they highlight and the scope of their maturing.
First-time director Josh Mond has fashioned that special kind of story with “James White,” a look at a late-20s man (Christopher Abbott) looking to drown the worry and exhaustion of dealing with his father’s death and the lingering ailments of his mother (Cynthia Nixon) in lots of booze and drugs.
While James’ manchild antics are only mildly compelling at first, the up-close ways in which cinematographer Mátyás Erdély (“Son of Saul”) follows him — from sweaty nightclubs to a hushed room of friends sitting shiva for his departed dad — lends an intimacy that catches every subtlety of Abbott’s performance, right down to the fatigue-induced fluttering of his eyelashes. James is a chaotic yet caring person — one who is kind to children and strangers yet lacking the awareness to know when it’s time to shut down the party.
“You need to be here when you say you’ll be here,” Nixon chides him as he shows up bedraggled and fresh from the club to her apartment, a room full of mourners for his father politely not raising too many eyebrows over his unkempt state.
Jayne, a new girlfriend James meets while bumming around Mexico (played by Makenzie Leigh), shows the viewer how James — now caring for his mother again — builds a support system around himself and expects them to be there for both the inebriated, hedonistic highs and brutal emotional lows, no matter how boorish he frequently behaves during both.
Ron Livingston also turns in a nice supporting role as Ben, a family friend who works at a magazine and tries to offer help to James in the way of a writing gig. Ben’s delicate dismissal of James at the office provides Abbott the opportunity for one of his best scenes, laughing off the suggestion (and reality) that he’s as unraveled as ever.
It’s almost a given that Nixon’s performance as James’ ailing mother is a showcase piece — she kills it at looking like she’s dying. In the hands of a big studio, it’d be the kind of heart-wrenching stuff that lands award nominations.
But “James White” is assuredly not a big studio picture. Abbott’s intensity as an actor is coupled with a feeling of being too close for comfort from the camerawork. At times, it feels like a pared-down, millennial generation reworking of the carousing of Cassavetes’ “Husbands,” rendered more as a character study than buddy film. This is indie done right.
So while we’ve grown accustomed to the coming-of-age story where someone’s dealing with sickness and death (“The Spectacular Now,” “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”), there’s still room for innovation. The dramatics come a little too easy, but Mond adds a heavy dose of volatility into the formula while still yielding something compelling and earnest.
“James White” opens Friday at the Sie FilmCenter. Rated R. One hour and 26 minutes. Four stars out of five.