Director: James Schamus
1h 50min | Drama | 18 November 2016 (UK)
Logan Lerman is superb as a young Jewish college student struggling with emotional and spiritual crises in a conservative university in 1950s America, in James Schamus’s debut film which adapts Philip Roth’s highly personal novel of the same name. It’s a handsomely mounted piece with a nuanced, interesting young character at the heart of the story, though viewers shouldn't go into this expecting loud emotional fireworks. This is film that deals more in mournful sadness and poignant reflection than screams. It also is very much, being a Roth story, in the business of sex, morality, death, faith, class, and guilt. Don’t go in expecting catharsis.
Death, or the spectre of it, is actually the first thing we see in the film, as we open in the war torn landscape of Korea, where America is embroiled in its police action that will ultimately lead to war with China, and an unsatisfactory peace later. It is not clear at first why we start here, or if the narration by Lerman, speaking as the main character, means he is here too in this war zone, but we soon pull back to a USA a thousand miles away, with all the riches of the post war boom in place but the shadow of the draft hanging over its youth. Despite the peaceful homefront, death is still the main pre-occupation of overbearing Newark-based kosher butcher Mr Messner, the father of a promising student, Marcus, who we soon learn is about to dodge the draft by being packed off to Winesburg College in Ohio; a conservative but prestigious institution. Mr Messner cannot bear to relinquish his son to the world beyond the protective shield of the family, given he is the family’s sole child, and Marcus is clearly growing tired, even frightened, of what he sees as his father’s growing paranoia.
But at college Marcus finds no peace. For one thing, despite his desire to escape from what he clearly sees as stiflingly conservative household and upbringing (he is a proud athiest, which immediately sets him apart from his family and the campus) he is sexually naive and thus confused by the advances of the beautiful and confident classmate Olivia Hutton (a beguiling Sarah Gadon). When a date leads to her giving him oral sex, he is literally stumped as to how to respond, leading to their relationship becoming rocky right from the start. Marcus can’t stand his socialist-leaning roommates either, who he sees as prying, rude and loud, even leaving his dorm at one point and moving into low-rent digs outside of college. His atheism means he resents the college’s demands that he attend the droning weekly chapel sermons, which he is told are mandatory for graduation. His working class background - he is the first of his family to go to college - is also an issue.
Lerman’s nuanced and passionate performance is married to a script which teases out his character’s believable intricacies, contradictions and flaws nicely over time. Marcus is not easily put into any one box, which is why he and his conflicts within the college structure are so interesting. Though initially a sympathetic figure, who it is easy to relate to with his desire to get away from the bearhug of his parents, Marcus is also revealed to be conservative and very tightly wound in his own ways: clearly having an issue with Olivia’s sexual confidence, for one thing. He is also insufferably self-righteous and hypersensitive; and in what is probably the film’s pivotal scene, where he is called into the Dean’s office and a battle of ideologies and wills slowly develops, his passionate quoting of Bertrand Russell’s defence of atheism leads to him leaping up and stamping about the Dean’s room, even puking and passing out from the effort.
This fiery sequence should be where Marcus states his case for the audience as a sort of heroic victim, but the scene doesn’t play out as you might expect. The Dean (played by the superb Tracey Letts) might be a conservative, patriarchal figure who it is easy to want to rail against, but he is shrewd as hell at picking out Marcus’s sensitivities about his background - the Dean notices for example he didn’t write “Kosher butcher” on his application form when describing his parent’s occupation - and never loses his temper even as Marcus shoots from the hip no matter how hard he tries to keep his cool. The Dean has clearly seen his fair share of high-horse riding firebrands before, and knows the college will survive them. He actually admires Marcus’s guts, even though you sense he correctly has guessed that Marcus, at 19, is unlikely to be as smart as he thinks he is. The Dean’s stated concern that Marcus’s inability to compromise, to be self-critical and unwind, will lead to negative consequences for him in the end turns out to have a ring of tragic, ironical truth to it.
Though this scene remains the film’s high point, Schamus’s film always remains watchable thanks to Lerman’s committed, totally relatable turn, and the way the various layers of complex crises are shown to slowly pile up on the youth’s shoulders. It all make for a pleasingly unconventional and very mordant tale about trying to “come into your own”, and a commentary on how ridiculous that idea might be in the grand scheme of things.