The mourners huff and haw indignantly and try to reason with him: What’s wrong with watching a little home video? In their view, he’s crazy, a hothead who can’t be trusted. 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. The guy is certainly facing some painful circumstances: Gail, we learn, has been treated for cancer, and her condition seems to have improved. But just as James, in his typical, aimless manner, takes off to Mexico for a little break (where he falls for a high-school-age cutie played by Makenzie Leigh), Gail summons him back with a panicky phone call. Her cancer has returned; can he come home immediately? The dynamic between the two is fascinating and at times wrenching. Earlier, James seemed like the needy one; now we see where he gets it from. Gail is childish and selfless by turns, not a pure manipulator but a complex one, and her physical suffering is genuine. Nixon is so good in the role that watching her waste away seems to shave off bits of us, too.
And by the end, you do feel something for James as well. Abbott plays him with the right amount of guilelessness. Pressed to make some sort of life for himself, James has expressed an interest in writing. When a family friend — played, with economical empathy, by Ron Livingston — interviews James for a job at New York magazine, the writing sample he brings in looks like chicken scrawl on a few wrinkled pages. When Livingston’s character sets James straight about his job prospects (they’re nil), we see the first glimmers of self-awareness in his eyes. When James White really digs in, it’s an affecting portrait of grief and of feeling lost in life. So often the two go hand in hand.