Now that veteran producer and writer James Schamus has finally jumped behind the camera to direct his first feature — his terrific “Indignation,” based on the Philip Roth novel, which Schamus also artfully adapted for the big screen — I can’t wait to see what else he can do as a director. Given his long history of writing such films as “The Ice Storm” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” producing movies like “Brokeback Mountain,” and championing the early careers of filmmakers like Ang Lee, Ethan and Joel Coen, and Todd Haynes — it’s likely Schamus will continue to helm some pretty impressive projects.
This intelligent, poignant and thought-provoking movie takes us a powerful journey as a relatively naive Jewish boy in 1951 Newark, New Jersey, experiences quite the culture clash as he heads to a small prestigious Ohio college, deeply rooted in very WASP-ish Christian values.
Logan Lerman plays that young man — Marcus Messner — who, frankly, leapt at the chance to escape his kosher butcher father (Danny Bursetin) and overbearing, yet extremely loving, mother (Linda Edmond), who understandably worry about their only child; so many of their friends and family members have lost their sons in the recently ended World War II or the Korean War, already in its second year.
Yet, once ensconced at the fictional Winesburg College (shades of Sherwood Anderson perhaps?) the quite stubborn Marcus immediately butts heads with a couple of obnoxious roommates, a stern but basically caring college dean (played brilliantly by Tracy Letts) and an unbreakable school rule about twice-weekly attendance at chapel.
Interestingly, Marcus’ objection to chapel attendance is not because he’s a Jew, but because he now considers himself to be an atheist.
In the midst of all this, he falls for — and then cruelly mishandles — a beautiful co-ed named Oliva Hutton, portrayed with amazing subtlety and sensitivity by Sarah Gadon. Olivia’s history of mental illness is key to this storyline, but is portrayed in such a way by Gadon that its meaning is significant, without turning into a simple, trite plot point.
However, as brilliant as Marcus obviously is, it is his infuriating lack of basic interpersonal skills — and inability to compromise about almost anything — that gets him into trouble. Of course, if Marcus had been more of the diplomat and learned how to “go-along-to-get-along,” we would not have had the intriguing tale that we see here.
Without question, some of the best scenes in the film involve Marcus and Dean Caudwell engaging in an ongoing debate that showcases both fantastic acting by Lerman and Letts, and intense dialogue, well-rooted in Roth’s original novel.
Watching those two actors verbally sparring with such delicious lines at their disposal is as good as it gets in contemporary cinema. Also noteworthy is a particularly dramatic scene when Marcus’ mother, played with great aplomb by the wonderful Linda Emond, comes to Ohio to have an important heart-to-heart conversation with her son about his life.
This is one helluva compelling film that presents us with several of the very best performances of the year. Lerman and Letts, in particular, present us with fully-developed characterizations that will remain with audiences long after they leave the theater.
This is one of the few “must-see” films so far this year.
Roadside Attractions presents a film written and directed by James Schamus. Based on the novel by Philip Roth. Running time: 110 minutes. Rated R (for sexual content and some language). Opening Friday at Landmark Century.