Cynthia Nixon is such a terrific actress that she can steady even the wobbliest material. In writer-director Josh Mond's modestly scaled family drama James White, she plays Gail, the mother of twentysomething underachiever James (Christopher Abbott, of Girls), a guy who can never seem to lay hands on a clean shirt, let alone a job. Shortly after the movie opens, he's arriving — barely — at his mother's apartment for the shivah of a man he barely knew, his own father. It turns out Dad left James and Gail long ago, eventually starting a new family. That woman and her daughter (neither of whom, it appears, James has ever met) show up, inexplicably, to help Gail mourn; even more unbelievably, someone pops in a video of Dad's second wedding, right in front of Gail, ostensibly to have a gander at the deceased looking happy in his new life. Who could even conceive of such a rude and heartless thing? Almost no one, except a filmmaker desperate to manufacture an opportunity for loose cannon James to fly off the handle.
The audience is cornered into taking his side: Poor James! He's so misunderstood! And he is something of a mess -- but our sympathy would be deeper and cleaner if the people around him weren't such obvious jerks. Luckily, James White gets better from there, though it's sometimes hard to feel for James precisely because Mond -- making his feature debut -- has pulled so many strings to make him sympathetic. Still, Abbott plays him with the right amount of guilelessness, and when James White really digs in, it's an affecting portrait of grief and of feeling lost in life.