(2016, James Schamus)
[Image courtesy of Roadshow Films]
[3 out of 5 stars]
Set in 1951, with the ongoing Korean War as the backdrop, Marcus Messner, son of a kosher butcher from New Jersey leaves home to study at a small conservative college in Ohio where his idealism is tested by an orthodox administration. At the same time, he wrestles with sexual repression following an encounter with a pretty and troubled girl, Olivia, (Sarah Gadon) where she performs fellatio after a perfectly pleasant first date. Utterly confused at first, Marcus’ initial thoughts: she did it because her parents are divorced. This inability to understand Olivia’s actions, sexual or otherwise, plagues the rest of his schooling years.
It’s not hard to see why Olivia would haunt Marcus’ thoughts. Her pale face, creamy voice and general air of uncanny grace are immediately arresting. Sarah Gadon gives Olivia’s character a palpable presence. Her daintiness hides an interior hurricane that summons both affection and fear. She’s not unlike Sylvia Plath in her intelligence and psychological unsteadiness, it’s even mentioned in the press notes that Olivia’s handwriting was modelled after Plath’s.
Adapted from the Phillip Roth novel of the same name, this handsome production is cinematic in its visual details, novelistic in its narrative and theatrical in its performances. Much of the narrative is interior and there are voiceovers to get us inside the head of Marcus. Although director James Schamus does all he can to depict Marcus' inward struggles and Logan Lerman does a fantastic job in fleshing out this introverted character, at times it made me wish I could read the book instead. That kind of inner turmoil could only be properly investigated through the pages of a novel.
There is a show-stopping scene that rips out the interiority and lays it all bare, exposing Marcus’ unwavering idealism against the institution that educates him. This one-on-one between the Dean of the college, played by playwright-actor Tracey Letts, and Logan Lerman is worth the price of admission. With one problem: it feels so much like theatre - in the way it is performed and staged - that I couldn’t help but desire to see this as a play instead.
Seeing the actor’s spit fly across the room as they hurl ideas about conduct, moral and values between one other would have been more satisfying than having the barrier of the cinematic screen get in the way of this explosive scene. Again, Schamus, his cinematographers and actors film this scene as best they can. The blocking and the framing of these two actors are well done: close-ups to reveal the simmering rage underneath Lerman’s boyish face and positioning these two figures amidst the institutional weight of the objects (books, portraits, trophies) surrounding them inside the Dean’s office. But alas, as effective as it is, I longed to see it on stage instead.