November 12, 2015 9:32 AM EST

A Manhattan kid born and raised, the title character of James White muddles his way through young adulthood in a fog of drink and smoke, with no job, no direction and no fixed address. James (Christopher Abbott) is dealing badly with the death of his estranged father, and soon enough he is dealing, badly, with the terminal illness of his much loved mother (Cynthia Nixon).

There is no solace to be had in this raw, intimate drama, a feature-film debut for writer-director Josh Mond. No triumph of the human spirit. There is instead something rarer and more valuable: urgently personal filmmaking, and Abbott’s stunning performance. Some may know him as Marnie’s too nice boyfriend Charlie in Girls, but here, with the camera close on his expressive face, Abbott finds power in explosions of self-destruction and glimpses of vulnerable soul within the character. In sync with Abbott, Nixon’s character cycles through love, anger and utter helplessness, weaving the aspects of one frightened woman into an honesty and generosity that unexpectedly lifts this compelling downer.

This appears in the November 23, 2015 issue of TIME.

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