Martha Marcy May Marlene producer Josh Mond returns to LFF this year with his first writing-directing feature about unconditional family love called James White. It’s not for the faint-hearted either. Winner of Sundance’s Audience Award for lead actor Christopher Abbott’s angst-laden performance in the title role, alongside co-star Cynthia Nixon as his sick mother, James White gives characters and viewers nowhere to hide from its brutal onslaught as we watch a what’s left of a family disintegrate over the course of a few months.

James (Abbott) is trying to come to terms with the recent death of his father, while being there for his generous-natured but demanding mother Gail (Nixon). The arrival of a close companion (Scott Mescudi) seems to provide short-term relief through hedonistic escape to bars, clubs and hotel rooms. However, when James learns that his mother’s cancer has returned for good and her early on-set dementia through the cancer drugs is gradually getting worse, James’s world is set to implode.

Mond keeps a tight frame from the start on James, as we get right into his personal space. It’s bold cinematography as we are made to connect to his pain and frustration without compromise. It’s an angry James throughout, with few lighter moments to defuse the unnerving tension, making you wonder what James in more fortunate circumstances would be like. It’s very much a coming-of-age tale where situation ‘maketh the man’.

Abbott is fearless in the role, showing aggression one second, fizzling out to tenderness the next – and vice versa. We understand that James is a very passionate and loyal person who is currently being dealt a raw deal in life. He is also (possibly) a very talented writer and storyteller. However, we also sense he is a slacker, maybe even spoilt, though quite why we will never know. This is because we are constantly left poised for his ultimate meltdown while we witness sporadic outbursts mainly defused by caring others.

Dementia aside, Nixon’s Gail is a passive aggressive, providing nurture and comfort one minute then devastating truths the next, schizophrenic in nature and hurtful to the one she loves the most. Nixon is tremendous in the role, displaying the full spectrum of emotions associated with her character’s predicament – the most alarming being when she inadvertently shows how scared she is for her son’s future not her own. This is portrayed in any number of ways depending on Gail’s state of mind at that moment.

James White is emotional to view, producing some fine acting at its core. However, you can’t help wondering who would pay to watch it in the cinema, outside of its festival billing. It’s too close to the bone for those who have gone through the same with a parent perhaps, and too depressing for those who haven’t. Therefore, you can’t help but be cynical that it’s a cathartic exercise for the filmmaker in some way, bordering on a vanity project. It’s certainly a tough sell.