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 20-something 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: He yells out self-righteously, shooing every single mourner away and embarrassing his mother (though there's no reason at all for her to be embarrassed).
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-aged 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.
Starring Christopher Abbott, Cynthia Nixon, Scott Mescudi, Makenzie Leigh, and Ron Livingston. Written and directed by Josh Mond. 85 minutes. Rated R. Opens Friday, December 11, at Cinema Paradiso - Hollywood (2008 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; 954-525-3456; fliff.com).