The film is based on the last but one novel by eminent American novelist Philip Roth which was published in 2008, for which the author, then aged 75, drew on his own youth in the sexually repressed America of 1951.
Marcus (Lerman) is a bright and hardworking Jewish student, son of a New Jersey butcher, who has won a scholarship to a college in Ohio – “such a clever boy”, exclaims one of his parents’ neighbours. The scholarship will not only remove him from his background and his arguably mentally unstable father (Danny Burstein), who has become neurotically fearful of the dangers of the modern world, but also enable him to avoid being drafted into the army to fight in the Korean war. When he gets to college he finds himself sharing a room with two annoying fellow students, who are also part of the student Jewish minority, a faction with which he doesn’t wish to be identified. As he explains in a pivotal scene, where he is being quizzed in a condescending and subtly racist manner by the college Dean (Letts), he didn’t identify himself as Jewish on his application form because he is an atheist – a claim which he then justifies with reference to a Bertrand Russell essay, Also adding fuel to his indignation of the title is the college requirement that all students have to regularly attend chapel. So although a promising student, Marcus is an intellectual rebel.
He is also, as young people were at that time, totally sexually inexperienced and ignorant. So when on a first date with Olivia (Gadon), a beautiful. blonde, non-Jewish student, he is totally nonplussed when unbidden she performs oral sex on him – an act with which American males in particular appear to be obsessed. Marcus’s upbringing and the mores of the time lead him to believe this makes her a “slut” but when Marcus is struck down with appendicitis and ends up in hospital, their somewhat bumpy and repressed relationship resumes. Until that is Marcus’s strong minded mother (Linda Emond) visits him. She immediately recognizes the scars on Olivia’s arms as a previous suicide attempt and an indication of a mental instability that echoes that of her own husband.
The story is framed by a sequence in which we see Marcus as a soldier in the Korean war with his narrative voice over indicating that he is looking back on his life and an enigmatic scene of a beautiful old woman (Sue Dahlman) in a care home.
Fans of Roth’s novels may perhaps feel unsatisfied by the film but as a piece of cinematic story telling is absorbing albeit slow paced but with excellent and richly textured performances. Lerman makes an empathetic if not always likeable central character and Gadon, who presents a different persona in every character she plays, is superb in this. With her shiny blond hair, pink cardigans and Peter Pan collars she appears on the surface to be the perfect poised young lady of the fifties but with a volcano of vulnerability and darkness lurking below the surface. Strongly supported by the older actors, this is a fascinating evocation of what it was like to be young in an era which was very different from today. The past is indeed another country.
Review by Carol Allen