- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 4, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

I have only ever read one of Philip Roth’s books, the Pulitzer Prize-winning “American Pastoral” from the late-‘90s, a masterwork of prose that follows the tragic downfall of a once-promising Newark, New Jersey, school football star and businessman. (It remains the only time I have ever seen my hometown of Whitehouse Station, New Jersey, ever mentioned in a book.) Mr. Roth’s searing tragedy tears the veneer off of middle-class, post-World War II life as his hero, Seymour “Swede” Levov, endures indignities as his family disintegrates in ways he could never have imagined.

Mr. Roth’s more recent book, “Indignation,” unread by myself, is now a film directed by James Schamus, a screenwriter among whose more notable writing credits is “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Mr. Schamus also wrote the script for “Indignation,” and based on his formidable handling of Mr. Roth’s story, his ear for the patter of midcentury dialogue and his assured feel behind the camera, he will likely see many accolades come his way during awards season.

It is 1951, and Logan Lerman stars as Marcus Messner, a Jewish student from Newark who, based on his aptitudes and gifts, is granted a scholarship to the prestigious Winesburg College in Ohio — also partly his way of avoiding the draft that is sending men his age to Korea.

That he is one of the only Jews at the school goes without saying, and such will be one of his many sources of misery.

Marcus is also an atheist, and a rather voluble one, which will bring him into rather Shakespearean conflict with the WASP-y Dean Caudwell (a superb Tracy Letts). His parents back home in New Jersey do not know of his apostasy, and nor does Marcus let on to some hidden, only hinted-at secret involving his rapidly failing father back home.

As a young adult, temptations of the flesh are ever present, and for Marcus they come in the form of the beautiful, intelligent Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), about whom little is at first known but that she came to the school under somewhat murky circumstances.

Marcus works up the courage to ask her out. She says yes, Marcus borrows his roommate’s Olds for the evening, and Olivia, rather forwardly, shows her affections at a secluded pull-off in a way that strikes Marcus as both exciting and confusing.

So confusing, in fact, that he avoids her thereafter.

A feminist when the term was still coming into its own, Olivia righteously decries being labeled a “slut” for doing something with her date that boys and girls have done together in secluded areas since time immemorial. But this was the ‘50s, when female sexuality was viewed with even more suspicion by males than it is now, and when uninhibited forwardness by women toward men was viewed as somehow entirely less acceptable than male pursuit.

In other words, Olivia has upset the natural order of things. Marcus, for reasons of both patriarchy and his own insecurities, cannot handle it.

The secrets of Olivia’s past become gradually known to Marcus, and one of the film’s strengths is that he absorbs and deals with such information exactly as a young man of his station and experience would do so. I have long grown weary of films where teenagers act and speak either like mini-adults as screenwriters long past that time of life would like to imagine then, or as glorified 12-year-olds stuck in perma-adolescence. Mr. Schamus‘ screenplay treats Marcus, Olivia and their classmates as how young adults think, react and behave, and he never condescends to or entreats the audience to laugh at them.

Marcus makes tremendously rash decisions and engages in acts that are hurtful to Olivia and to others around him. We like him because we see ourselves as we once were in our younger days in both his immaturity and his insecurity. It is played not for laughs but for the pathos of adolescence. For the choices we make on the cusp of adulthood — both good and bad — inform our character as we come into our own. So is it true for Marcus.

“If you were Jewish” in the New York area “and of a certain age, you knew the work of Philip Roth,” Mr. Schamus told me recently when he was in the District to promote the film alongside his star, Mr. Lerman.

Mr. Schamus, a Columbia film professor whose screenwriting credits include both “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Lust, Caution” for Ang Lee, believed that his longtime familiarity with Mr. Roth’s oeuvre presented him with the opportunity to make his directorial debut with “Indignation.” Mr. Schamus even smiles slyly recalling the scandalous uproar that attended the publication of Mr. Roth’s “pornographic” early work, “Portnoy’s Complaint,” in 1969 when Mr. Schamus was a young man.

That book’s notorious, graphic depictions of masturbation and other sexual practices would become a hallmark of Mr. Roth’s later writing, certainly in “American Pastoral.” This through line runs right up through “Indignation,” published in 2008, but in the latter work, Mr. Roth is more attendant upon societal labels associated with public knowledge of private dealings — one might argue, which reached its nadir in the Clinton years.

Mr. Schamus takes great risk as a filmmaker, partly in the frankness with which he deals with the sexual component of “Indignation.” But his single greatest dare has him pause the action, mid-film, for a 20-minute scene wherein Dean Caudwell calls Marcus into his office, wishing to know, first of all, why Marcus asked for a change of dormitory housing. In a lie, Marcus says that he wishes to spend more time studying, even though he popped one of his roomies in the mouth for offering a disparaging word about Olivia a few scenes earlier.

This is only the setup, and before long, Mr. Lerman and Mr. Letts are forging a remarkable two-man tet-a-tet that is worthy of the intimacy of the Albee stage as the two thespians channel their characters and, through a veritable master’s class in writing and acting, make the scene more dazzling with each passing remark. The dean, firstly, wants to know if Marcus‘ father, a butcher, is in fact a “kosher” butcher, to which Marcus replies that his family religion is unimportant.

Ah, but it is, and the limits of the dean’s not-so-hidden anti-Semitism are toyed with, by both himself and Marcus, before the young man outs with his atheism, saying that he feels under undue pressure to attend chapel when he is a nonbeliever. The dean, more to play a game of wits than to belittle his young charge, tries to suss out how anyone, let alone a young person, can be without faith, before realizing that he has in fact met his equal in dialectic.

Why won’t he join some activities? Marcus says he wants to concentrate on his studies. As a straight-A student, he says, he takes his academics seriously. Dean Caudwell is not satisfied with this line of reasoning.

“Why am I being interrogated?” Marcus continually asks, in a perhaps not-so-subtle righteous paranoia of his continually oppressed people.

Marcus continues to call the dean “sir,” to which the dean responds that it is not a military academy. Marcus brings up the infamous atheistic writings of Bertrand Russell; the dean says that as an adulterer, Russell cannot be taken seriously. Marcus responds that the dean is making appeals to ad hominem.

It is a virtuoso sequence, and Mr. Schamus, in his blocking and his writing, never makes the scene feel rushed or too long. Movies have largely forgotten the value of just having two characters converse, which creates far more drama than a league of exploding alien ships conjured by a computer. It is the best scene in a film so far this year.

This being the Roth universe, tragedy is not far off, for Marcus, for Olivia, for all. Marcus at one point suffers a crisis, for which his mother travels from the east to help out. Upon meeting Olivia, and learning about her history, Marcus‘ mother, in a scene of painful logic, offers Marcus a tortured bargain that I would not dream of ruining here.

Christopher Blauvelt captures the mood of the bucolic, midcentury Midwest in his able photography, and Jay Wadley crafts a hauntingly pained score that portends tragic events ahead for all. The acting is superlative throughout, particularly from Mr. Lerman and Miss Gadon, who has to carry far more of the emotional heft of the story than might be expected. And Mr. Lerman’s two key scenes with Mr. Letts are about as good as film acting gets.

This is the kind of melodrama that reminds me of how good fiction can be when it is properly realized. In a year that so far has offered middling examples and a few notable exceptions, “Indignation” has the strength of its convictions and creates living, breathing characters in a setting that is fully inhabited by its denizens. Its highs are earned, and its lows, as aching as they are, have a certain poetry underpinned by the longings of tragedy.

Rated R: Contains profanity and some implied sexual activity — though it is much less explicit than might be suspected.

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