Directed by James Schamus.
Starring Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon, Tracy Letts and Linda Emond.
Teenager Marcus Messer (Logan Lerman) comes from a working class Jewish family and enrolls at college to avoid the draft. Studious and solitary, he’s inexperienced in the ways of the world until he meets the beautiful Olivia (Sarah Gadon). Their one and only date leaves an indelible impression on him, but his protective mother is less than happy about the relationship. So he’s forced to make a choice.
Director James Schamus is already a well-established writer and producer, best known for his collaborations with Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Ice Storm), and a career that started in the early 90s. Now he’s taken up the director’s chair for his first feature film, something he described in a recent interview as his “mid-life crisis”. And it’s probably less than coincidental that he’s made a film about a teenage crisis.
He’s also picked a book by an author whose track record of film adaptations is less than rosy. Indignation is one of Philip Roth’s later books but still examines his familiar themes – sexual awakening and what it is to be Jewish. In this case, it’s based on Roth’s own experiences as a college undergraduate. The story is set against the backdrop of the Korean War and it’s hardly ever out of sight or mind. The college Marcus attends has a cadet corps, seemingly permanently on parade on the college green, but the war plays a more significant part in the story. It’s the reason Marcus, and most of the other male students, have become students and it also bookends the film, as he thinks out loud about war and death.
Those scenes add another dimension to the coming of age theme. Compared to the young man we see in college, he’s most definitely grown up and realised that much in life is pure chance and can’t be controlled, even though he’d like to. But he does much of his growing up at college, learning about sex with help from the beautiful and willing Olivia and becoming more independent away from his parents, despite finding those apron strings tighter than he would like. Not that his protective mother (Linda Emond) shows any signs of loosening them.
It’s a very intense film on a number of levels. There’s a genuine intensity about his feelings for Olivia, even if he and we know that their relationship can never come to anything. And his own teenage intensity means that he’s right about everything and just won’t be told. As an only child of older parents, he doesn’t adapt well to having room mates and eventually moves to a single room in the worst building on campus. The reason? He says the other students were too noisy.
And that intensity makes for an often gloomy piece of introspection, with a sludgy palette of 50s greens and browns to underline it. The only respite is when Marcus spends time in the college hospital, where everything is clinically white. It all comes as a stark contrast to a film from the start of the year, with another 1950s teenager starting out on life’s big adventure. That film was Brooklyn, but it showed us an America full of bright colours and sunshine.
Slap bang in the centre of the film comes its highlight, a fifteen minute encounter between Marcus and the college’s Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts), who has to insist more than once that the overly polite young man doesn’t call him sir. It’s a tremendous intellectual sparring match between the two, all about religion and philosophy, yet it starts innocently enough with an enquiry about Marcus’s social life. It doesn’t stay that way for long and we’re treated to a scene full of thought provoking insight delivered with razor sharp wit. They have a second, briefer encounter later on and, as soon as you see Marcus outside the Dean’s door, you’re almost licking your lips in anticipation of round two.
It’s a film full of good performances. Logan Lerman as the conflicted Marcus, constantly pulled in different directions throughout his college life. Sarah Gadon as Olivia, outwardly confident but inwardly full of turmoil, the scar on her wrist her only sign of inner fragility. It doesn’t escape Linda Emond’s Esther, Marcus’s mother, who is watching her own husband go downhill and is hell-bent on making sure that her only son doesn’t shackle himself to somebody going the same way.
Schamus’s self-confessed “mid-life crisis” is a film full of layers, well developed characters and ideas to chew on well after the credits have rolled. It’s also another example of the strength and depth of the films at this year’s Sundance London and, while a UK release date hasn’t been confirmed, there are rumours that later in the year is on the cards. There’s an audience waiting for it.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Freda Cooper. Follow me on Twitter, check out my movie blog and listen to my podcast, Talking Pictures.
. url=”.” . width=”100%” height=”150″ iframe=”true” /]