Abbott, previously known to me as a hapless boyfriend on Girls, is a revelation, a tightly bound ball of nerves with a short fuse. He leaves the opening funeral reception to get a drink, which quickly escalates into a bar fight, and his comfort with it implies this isn't the first time he's instigated drama. In the brief period between the funeral and the remission, the viewer sees him relax on a beach vacation. The shoulders relax a little, the brow unfurrows, and Mond and DP Matyas Erdely don't follow him quite so closely with the camera, letting the world that James is at the center of breathe a bit. The contrast is so effective that when the phone call comes about Gail's worsening condition and the frame seizes up again, the viewer doesn't have to stretch to imagine the dread James is feeling. He's a rock around Gail, but a mess everywhere else. It takes all of his energy to keep his composure when carrying his mother to the toilet or doing any of the other myriad tasks required, and there's just nothing left for the rest of the world.
It's during the scenes of caretaking that James White becomes an exhausting endeavor. Running in between hospital desks and waiting on hold with insurance companies has rarely felt so enraging, especially for a character with an established short temper who probably knows from earlier experience how quickly a white-collar interaction ends when anger is added to the equation. Once the treatment is agreed upon, however, there's still no respite. James takes care of his mother when the hospice nurse isn't there, and it looks physically and mentally exhausting for him, to say nothing of Gail, who's in agony. Nixon, herself a cancer survivor, is holding nothing back in her performance, sweating and vomiting and making strange guttural yells and acting delirious with fever. The collaboration between she and Mond, whose mother also struggled with cancer, comes out in how raw and harrowing these scenes are, and in how they're approached from both perspectives. When the hospice worker finally arrives for her shift, James gives her a well-deserved bear hug, the least he can do to express his gratitude for her back-up.
With a focus so intimate on James and Gail, there isn't much time for the supporting characters, especially an under-developed girlfriend James meets on vacation, but when the film is getting small details so seemingly right and true, that isn't much of a detraction. James White reframes the question asked of the 50/50 ex-girlfriend. It's not how could she leave, but how could she stay? The level of commitment would have to be ironclad to get through such a trial. James White leaves the viewer with an exceptional mother-son relationship, and a burgeoned respect for nurses. B+