Writer-helmer Ryan Eslinger purportedly began working on “Madness and Genius” at age 13, and though he’s 22 now, it’s still hard to believe that this mature (both stylistically and content-wise), downright sober debut feature sprang whole from someone so young. Resembling a chamber-scaled, downbeat riposte to such inspirational scholastic crowd pleasers as “Dead Poets’ Society” and “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” stark drama is thoroughly involving, though B&W high-def lensing and lack of marquee names may limit exposure beyond the fest circuit. Regardless, it’s an effort impressive enough to both serve as first-class industry calling card and transcend the pandering that term usually implies.
Script centers on a quartet whose variously driven affiliations with a top U.S. university mask barren emotional lives that each uses to exploit another. A 30-year staff veteran, physics prof Frank Donovan (Tom Noonan), still carries a formidable reputation for research brilliance. But he’s grown increasingly eccentric and withdrawn, alienating students and fellow faculty.
Undergraduate Nigel (David Williams) might be headed down the same forked path of genius and bleak solitude. Fighting a futile battle against Lou Gehrig’s disease, he’s ashamed of being a “cripple” and has no real friends to offer support.
His closest alliance is a businesslike one with classmate Jordan (David James Hayward), who’s on scholarship bearing the full weight of his parents’ high expectations. Jordan had no trouble appearing a prodigy through high school, but in the more rigorous college atmosphere, he flounders. As Nigel and Prof. Donovan soon suss out, the youth has a photographic memory and can spit back any information he’s given; he’s simply a mimic. Demonstrating actual intellectual understanding or curiosity, however, now proves his Achilles heel.
Putting up a brusque front, Nigel willingly ghosts papers for Jordan, taking cash in return. But this still isn’t enough to keep Jordan off academic probation. Desperate, Jordan asks the unwelcoming Donovan to be his thesis advisor — but his real agenda is accessing the prof’s office for any innovative private scholarship he can absorb or steal. Caught in the act, he resorts to blackmail, having already purloined mysterious designs for a secret medical-scientific device of which only Nigel can guess the full import.
Incisive dialogue, scant incidental music (just helmer’s spare piano tinkling) and lenser Steve Huber’s elegant, gray-monochrome compositions all add to deliberately paced drama’s quiet buildup. Resolution is almost disappointing in its cynicism, if only because sense of injustice has been made so palpable. But it’s in keeping with pic’s somewhat fatalistic air, which is leavened by characterizations that allow even the appalling Jordan a degree of pathetic entrapment.
Results are rather like a Mamet play, albeit one whose cruel power-plays leave room for more heartfelt (but unsentimental) human vulnerability.
Leads are expert, with Noonan underplaying Donovan’s crazy-coot qualities. Hayward and Meyers limn mostly unsympathetic figures in naturalistic terms. Most potent, however, is Williams’ turn. He poignantly conveys not just Nigel’s physical degeneration, but also the horror with which young protag witnesses his personality take a likewise permanent shift toward antisocial bitterness and self-pity.
Minimalist design contribs make a virtue out of story’s small scale, lending potentially theatrical material a fluid, lightly stylized intimacy. Visual presentation provides one model (if admittedly not a very commercial one) of how high-def can be used to successfully approximate highly cinematic styles. Eslinger has cited Gordon Willis’ brooding work on 1971 classic “Klute” as an inspiration, and allowing for current feature’s very different content and B&W look, “Madness” does that comparison justice.