By Shelley A. Sackett
Boston Jewish Film Festival did a real mitzvah on Sunday, July 17 when it treated local film lovers to a free sneak preview of Indignation, the film based on the 2008 Philip Roth novel that opens at the West Newton Cinema and local theaters on July 29. Even better, BJFF further indulged the sold out audience by bringing director and screenwriter James Schamus, (co-founder and former CEO of Focus Features) and his lead actor, Logan Lerman (Fury, Percy Jackson, The Perks of Being a Wallflower), to the stage for a post-screening Q&A.
Semi-autobiographical, Roth’s dark story fictionalizes his own early-1950’s college experience at Bucknell University in rural Pennsylvania. Schamus picked up the slim novel in an airport and fell in love with the book. “It is contemporary but shocking,” the producer and frequent Ang Lee collaborator said.
Set in 1951 against the backdrop of the Korean War, Indignation introduces us to Marcus Messner (played by 24-year-old Logan Lerman). He is the straight-A, straight-laced only son of Max, an overbearing Newark kosher butcher, and Esther, his practical, well-meaning wife (played by theatre veterans Danny Burstein and Linda Emond). Marcus is also the film’s narrator, and his voiceover story has a single simple message: the choices we make determine our fate.
When Marcus’ buddies start coming home from Korea in body bags, Max’s spiraling anxieties fuel his transition from paternal protector to paranoid oppressor. “The tiniest mistakes can have consequences,” he relentlessly warns his son, worried he will squander his future in a pool hall or behind the wrong closed door.
As much to escape his suffocating parents as to avoid the draft, Marcus accepts a scholarship (awarded by his synagogue) to the fictional, elite and very WASP-y Winesburg College in bucolic Ohio. Instantly, the cinematographer Christopher Blauvett’s pallet changes from the overcast skies and gloomy browns and greys of working-class Newark to the sunshine and lush lawns of the collegiate mid-West.
Marcus’ emotional pallet, however, retains its muddy hues. A defiant loner by choice, he avoids getting too close to his two roommates and chafes at any action he interprets as controlling. He resents mandatory chapel attendance not because he is Jewish, but because he is an atheist. He is an equal opportunity religious objector, a rebel for whom the whole world is his cause.
He joylessly slogs through his days, excelling at his studies and working in the library. Then one day, the dreamy creamy Olivia (Sarah Gadon) awakens his slumbering id. Simultaneously calculated and insouciant, she casts her line in Marcus’ sight line and reels him in with the lure of her twitching foot. Schamus’ light directorial touch subtly alerts us to impending danger and ultimate doom. She is Eve, and Marcus is ravenous for whatever she is serving up.
During their first date at the only French restaurant in town, the two seem an easy intellectual match, but there’s an unsettling emotional power imbalance at play. He’s as naïve and unscathed as she is cynical and damaged. Even later, during and after the unsolicited sexual favor she performs on him in the front seat of his roommate’s borrowed car, there’s a steely premeditation to Olivia that puts Marcus (and the audience) on edge. This is the least intimate intimate act imaginable, and that disconnect bodes ill for our protagonist.
Marcus may be sitting in the driver’s seat, but Olivia’s clearly behind the wheel. With that single shocking act, she has changed his life forever, and she knows it.
Their initial infatuation becomes hopelessly complicated, careening from snub to obsession to mutual self destruction. This unravels the stoic Marcus to the point where he draws the attention of Dean Hawes Caudwell (played by the terrific Tracy Letts, lately of “Homeland” fame), who summons him to his office for a little chat. In an 18-minute scene that is the unequivocal showpiece of the film, Marcus sheds his melancholic reserve and demonstrates his High School debate captain chops as he rips into the Dean’s defense of all things Winesburg, including mandatory chapel.
Admiring the precocious Marcus’ considerable oratory skills while clearly loathing his message, the Dean treats him as an intellectual equal, and the two go at it tooth and nail. There is no deference to status or age; this is intellectual trench warfare, and each is prepared to fall on the blade of his razor sharp wit.
“I knew the film would live or die on that scene,” Schamus said during the Q&A, and he’s right. It’s the most riveting and emotional scene of the entire movie. It’s a shame Marcus doesn’t show half the passion and urgency with Olivia that he does while lacerating the Dean. The two lovers just don’t share the same on-screen chemistry.
Eventually things go from not great to worse, and Esther shows up at Winesburg when Marcus lands in the hospital after an emergency appendectomy. She meets Olivia, immediately spots the suicide scars on her wrist, and quickly evaluates the danger her son is in. The scene where she exacts Marcus’s promise never to see Olivia again in exchange for her remaining married to his increasingly abusive father is both devastating and tender.
In his directorial debut, Schamus has made a classy, painterly film. As Marcus, Lerman gives a focused performance of subtlety and depth. Although Marcus is clearly Jewish, he is more engaging and accessible than the neurotic clichéd stereotypes popularized by Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Allen. Each time he bristles at some real or imagined oppressive authority figure, his indignation brings home the film’s point.
Gadon’s Olivia is impossible to look away from. She is as complicated as she is stunning, equal parts Lauren Bacall, Grace Kelley and Rebecca Pigeon. Letts, however, is nothing short of brilliant as Dean Caudwell, the roguish academic autocrat whose concern for Marcus is both intrusive and sincere.
Schamus has made a good, entertaining movie, especially considering it is the industry’s “Summer Season”. But for Jay Wadley’s trite and overbearing score, and the fact that we really don’t care enough about Olivia and Marcus because they don’t seem to care enough about each other, it could have been a very good one indeed.