Trey Edward Shults is the writer, director and co-star of the 2015 award-winning film Krisha. The film premiered at SXSW where it received the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award, and had its international premiere at the Cannes Film Festival where it played in Semaine de la Critique. A24 acquired worldwide rights to Krisha, and also released Trey’s follow-up, the 2017 horror thriller It Comes at Night, starring Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo, Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Riley Keough. His latest film, the family drama Waves, starring Kelvin Harrison Jr., Lucas Hedges, Taylor Russell and Sterling K. Brown, is now in theaters, also through A24.
I just watched James White for the second time. I first got to see it in a 1500-seat theater in Deauville, France, at a festival where my film, Krisha, was competing against it. Actually, I had a weird relationship with the film before I even saw it: I was a Kickstarter backer looking forward to the third member of Borderline Films releasing his first feature. Then James White got into Sundance, and Krisha did not. I remember reading the great reviews for the film coming out of Sundance, and I couldn’t help but feel jealous. In my mind, I drew up an imaginary competition with this movie. I really wanted to see it, and I hoped it was good, but not better than my film. It’s a competitive side of me with which I have a love/hate relationship. No matter how much good happens to me, I’m never totally satisfied. This helps fuel me to push myself harder, but it can also cloud my vision and let me lose perspective, meaning I don’t fully enjoy the blessings that happen in my life. I am happy to report that once I finally saw James White, I threw all that bullshit to the side. It’s a film that broke my heart a couple of times, and I realized that I didn’t need to have any stupid imaginary competition with it.
Briefly, James White is about a young and reckless New Yorker of the same name who is battling his demons in the face of extreme upheaval within his family. As the movie opens, you learn that James has just lost his dad, whom he clearly had a rocky relationship with, and James’ mom has cancer. The screenplay by Josh Mond is super smart in how it sketches James’ complexities, and Christopher Abbot brings so many dimensions to the character. He is fantastic. The smallest moments, such as watching him slowly wake from an all-night bender, are compelling and so real. Cynthia Nixon is equally great playing his mother. She knows she is nearing the end of her life and leaving her son, who is a mess, but she has so much light, beauty and wisdom to share. Nixon frequently reminded me of my own lovely mom. I also have to give a shout-out to Scott Mescudi (aka Kid Cudi), who plays James’s best friend. I have been a big fan of Cudi’s music for a while now, and I’ve even burnt CDs of his albums for my mom. He gives a great supporting performance here. Cudi also scores the film, where his musical contribution is minimal, but spot on. He makes a track that opens and closes the film, and it feels like James’ theme song. I also love how Josh and his great D.P., Mátyás Erdély, chose to shoot the movie, and how editor Matthew Hannam gives the film the perfect pace, rhythm, and length. James White is an extremely solid piece of filmmaking.
Beyond just being solid filmmaking, I relate to this movie in numerous ways. For starters, I just made an extremely personal film about a character battling her own demons. I also have a very close relationship with my mom, who stars in my movie, and almost two years ago my dad, with whom I had a rocky relationship, died of cancer. I have no idea how personal James White really is for Josh Mond, but I would be shocked if similar events haven’t played out in his own life. The film’s portrayal of someone slowly passing from cancer is crushingly real, and the relationship between James and his mother is so resonant to me. I couldn’t help but think of my relationship with my own mom, and how incredibly hard it was saying goodbye to my dad.
There is one scene in James White that really gets me every time I see it. I won’t spoil anything, but it involves James and his mom in a bathroom sharing an incredibly poignant moment. The reality of the scene brought back memories of taking care of my dad as he was passing, but the connection between this mother and son reminded me of when my mom recently had to have shots injected into her back for her back pain. I had to drive her home from the hospital and make sure she was okay for the rest of the day. When we were driving home, a Radiohead song called “Harry Patch (In Memory Of)” came on the car stereo. It’s an extremely sad and beautiful song, and it was playing right at sunset. We had one of those shared moments when everything else in the world just disappears, except for a deep, unmistakable connection. My mom and I cried listening to the music and watched the world pass by our windows. I remember feeling so peaceful and happy. It felt like a moment I would remember for the rest of my life, and one I would cherish if I ever lost her. Moments like that are fleeting, and you have to hang on to them before they are gone.
When I was a kid, my mom would read me a book that I have since forgotten the title of. What I remember so vividly, though, was the imagery. I remember images of the mother taking care of her son and raising him from a newborn baby to a man. I remember images of that man then taking care of his mother in return, once she was no longer capable of taking care of herself. The book was basically about the circle of life. For me, James White is about this circle, but it is primarily about the inevitability of death, and what we do with our time while we are here. Death terrifies me. What terrifies me even more is being consumed by regret on my deathbed, the same way my dad was. As far as I know, we only have one life. My mom would disagree with that notion, but I know we can both agree that what people do during their lives, and the people they become, is everything. Finding a balance in your life and being a happy person is sometimes the best you can do. We’ve lost poor souls in our family who couldn’t find that balance. Overall, I think I have found a balance only because of my mom and stepdad. They have taught me, in a similar way to how James’ mom is trying to teach him, how to properly channel certain energies. I do still struggle with anger and rage, like James does. I hope James finds a way to channel that energy, like I have with filmmaking. I believe he will because of the way James grows from a kid to a man whenever he has to take care of his mom during her final days.
Ever since my dad passed from cancer, I think I’ve changed as a person. Certain things happen in our lives that truly alter our perspectives, especially if those things have to do with death or losing a loved one. I feel like our movie, Krisha, has a lot of lost souls connected to it, and not just in my family. My best friend and Krisha‘s co-producer lost his mom the day we won the Grand Jury Award at SXSW. It was a random event that no one could’ve predicted, and it was truly devastating. He didn’t get the chance to take care of his mom. Death is not fair. It can be quick and random, or slow and steady, but there is no escaping it.
I hope I get the opportunity to watch James White with my mom. I am sure we will cry our eyes out together and share that cathartic experience a film like this can provide. I hope that I will have the opportunity to take care of my mom before she leaves this life. I hope I can be next to her until her last breath, and that she doesn’t leave this world with any of the regret my dad had. Life is beautiful and tragic, and that is a dichotomy we have to live with if we are ever going to enjoy our short time here. We have to remember to keep some perspective and to cherish time and relationships while we have them. Thank god we have art like James White; art that can provide us perspective on life and remind us that death is inevitable, but what’s important is what we do with our time here and the persons we become.