The family tragedy film James White brings us relentlessly close to its protagonist

It's excruciating, but gradually our close proximity to the eponymous shambolic twentysomething allows for a deepening intimacy.

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In the dynamic and electrifying drama James White, the director Josh Mond thrusts us into the physical space of his self-destructive title character and keeps us there. We are so close at all times to James (Christopher Abbott), a shambolic twentysomething who has just lost his father and is coping with the terminal illness of his mother (Cynthia Dixon), that we come to know every crease in his face, and we can register the slightest hint of the bloodshot in his eyes.

Mond is hardly the first filmmaker to force us to be bosom buddies with a protagonist. The Dardenne brothers and Gus Van Sant like to put the viewer in the position of stalker or shadow. The style of James White is most reminiscent of the great Lodge Kerrigan, the US director of psychological studies including Clean, Shaven and Keane, who rarely gives audience or characters much breathing space.

The effects of this approach change over the course of James White. At first, it is purely claustrophobic. The tight frame is used to ambush us – when someone throws a drink or a punch in James’s direction (as they are wont to do: he is not the most personable fellow you’ll ever meet), we don’t have the warning that a medium or wide-shot might give us.

Violence and hostility, whether directed at James or doled out by him, come entirely out of the blue. But gradually our close proximity to him allows for a deepening intimacy. It isn’t only that we are there with him during, say, a shower with his girlfriend or while he is stomping over the bonnets and roofs of parked cars (though we are). Abbott’s skill in allowing us access to James’s emotions, and Mond’s attentiveness in capturing every tremor of doubt, fear or rage, produce a rare level of psychological detail.

Though this is Mond’s first film, he is an experienced producer, and the nature of some of the movies he has worked on (including Martha Marcy May Marlene and Simon Killer) may prepare you for the sort of intensity that is his typical comfort zone. But it is still possible to be struck by the brilliance of some of the scenes here, such as an excruciating job interview or a long sequence showing James painstakingly soothing his mother with an extended reverie about an imaginary blissful future together in Paris.

In those instances, brilliant writing, directing, acting and cinematography converge to the point that each element cannot be separated from the other. James White received ecstatic reviews, and a spot at last year’s London Film Festival, but a theatrical release was ruled out due to a lack of interest from exhibitors. More fool them. It’s not easy viewing by any means. But it is strangely refreshing for a movie to show us that terminal illness involves agony and vomit and terror, despite what Beaches might have told us.

James White is on DVD from 29 February.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

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