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Sundance Review: James Schamus Explores Young Angst in His Directorial Debut

Indignation. Directed by James Schamus. Written by James Schamus from Philip Roth's novel Indignation. Main Cast: Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon, Tracy Letts, Ben Rosenfield.

The late Robin Williams had a noteworthy comedy routine where he riffed about Mother Teresa and her accomplishments. After an admirer acknowledged a laundry list of her greatest miracles, she was asked then what did she really want to do next. The saintly leader paused and quietly replied, “I want to direct.”

James Schamus, the former spiritual head of Good Machine and Focus Features, who has personally achieved a few miracles himself; nominated for three Academy Awards in three different fields, Best Screenplay, Best Original Song and Best Film, and serving as a Professor at Columbia University, finally did what Mother Teresa sadly never got the chance. Schamus directed. The film is called Indignation, which had its world premiere at the 2016 Sundance Film festival.

And that deserves an Amen!

Based on a novel by Philip Roth, Indignation tells the story of a young Jewish man named Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) from Newark, New Jersey who is able to avoid going to the Korean War by enrolling at the prestigious Winesburg College in Ohio. The young scholar, quite the intense loner, seems ill equipped at first to transition to this newfound academic life – socially, sexually and spiritually.

Marcus resists the outreach of friendship from not only his Jewish roommates but the Jewish fraternity as well; which try to enlighten him that in these turbulent 1950s, it might be easier to have ‘like minded’ friends. But he seems laser focused on just his studies and his scholarship-mandated job; that is until his attention soon turns to the blond and alluring Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon). But a first date goes terribly wrong when the evening ends with Olivia getting sexually aggressive, throwing Marcus not only off guard but unsure of his next move.

The anxiety mounts; so much so, that he isolates himself even more; becoming farther resistant to not only his family but any semblance of assimilation. The film reaches its zenith during an 18-minute confrontation between student and faculty, when Marcus goes up against the forceful Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts); engaging in a brilliant verbal tennis match where each opponent gets to serve up their respective values then sending back smashing retorts. But just when it seems Marcus might have validated his points, his body deceives him, sending him to the hospital and further down a road of conflict.

What happens next and how does our protagonist navigate this minefield of family and structure? Those answers can be attained later this year when Summit/Lionsgate releases the film. To give away more would be a disservice to this taut psychological study of the human condition.

But kudos to Schamus for choosing such an intimate story to make his directorial debut. His attention to detail is impressive and quiet and his cast of characters never hits a false note; sidestepping what could easily have been stereotypical trappings.

Mother Teresa would be proud.

Scott Orlin