(director/writer: James Schamus; screenwriter: based on a Philip Roth novel; cinematographer: Christopher Blauvelt; editor: Andrew Marcus; music: Jay Wadley; cast: Logan Lerman (Marcus Messner), Sarah Gadon (Olivia Hutton), Tracy Letts (Hawes Caudwell), Linda Emond (Esther), Danny Burstein (Max Messner, the butcher father), Ben Rosenfield (Bertram Flusser), Pico Alexander (Sonny Cottler), Philip Ettinger (Ron Foxman), Noah Robbins
(Marty Ziegler), Richard Topol (Mo Greenberg); Runtime: 110; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Anthony Bregman/ James Schamus/Rodrigo Teixeira; Likely Story/Symbolic Exchange; 2016)
“Schamus richly captures the angst of his Jewish protagonist, who is the alter ego of the author as a college student on a campus of mostly gentiles.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Columbia University professor, screenwriter and producer James Schamus tries his hand at directing in this intelligent period piece coming-of-age drama, which is his directing debut. The film is based on the deeply personal 2008 novel by Philip Roth. As a rule, Roth novels do not translate well to the big screen. But this film is the exception. Schamus richly captures the angst of his Jewish protagonist, who is the alter ego of the author trying to find his identity as a college student on a campus of mostly gentiles. In 1951, the Newark, New Jersey, 18-year-old Marcus Mesner (Logan Lerman) gets away from his overbearing kosher butcher father Max (Danny Burstein) and over-protective mom (Linda Emond) by accepting a scholarship to the small Winesburg College, a mostly Christian school in Ohio. College admission also allows him a draft exemption and to miss the Korean War. The indignant, idealistic and atheistic diligent student refuses to mingle with the school’s small Jewish community. Instead he finds a tentative romance with a beautiful but suicidal shiksa classmate, Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), who gives the virgin head unexpectedly on their first date. The playwright Tracy Letts is engaging playing the dean trying to bully the secular student to attend chapel at least 10 times, in compliance with the college policy. Their 15-minute intellectual debate is the film’s centerpiece, showing the dean entrenched in the status-quo while the student rebels against such conservative values. The gentle but provocative violin score by Jay Wadley, the well-presented period details, the fine ensemble acting and the solid art-house presentation of a loner trying to figure things out for himself, without support from adults, makes for a better than average adult drama.
REVIEWED ON 6/4/2016 GRADE: B