2016, R, 110 min. Directed by James Schamus. Starring Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon, Tracy Letts, Linda Emond, Danny Burstein, Ben Rosenfield, Pico Alexander, Philip Ettinger, Noah Robbins.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Aug. 12, 2016
Adapted by James Schamus from Philip Roth’s 2008 novel, Indignation is a meditative coming-of-age story set in 1951. Being a tale from the author who gave us Portnoy’s Complaint, we know that the film will likely feature a Jewish homeboy from Newark, N.J., expressions of penile enlightenment, blow jobs, shiksa goddesses, and shiksa goddesses who give blow jobs. And remember the time period: The young inheritors of today’s sexual mores have a way of forgetting the strictures of the more straitlaced recent past. Indignation, however, is not really about sex, but rather, the cataclysms that can result from the most banal of choices.
During the film’s prologue, we are told that the tiniest missteps in life can lead to tragic consequences. But not until the film’s climax do these words come back to haunt the entire story and reveal their truth in a stark dramatic turn. It’s a deftly executed shift, and one that catches us off-guard, having become so wrapped up in the narrative and the characters’ more mundane concerns.
Marcus Messner (Lerman), a straight-A student who is the pride of his Jewish parents, leaves Newark in 1951 to attend Winesburg (yes, Winesburg) College in Ohio. There, he refuses to join the one Jewish fraternity, and verbally spars with the dean (Letts) over the school’s requirement that all students attend regular chapel services. Marcus’ resistance is based on his avowed atheism rather than his Jewish pedigree. Their lengthy confrontation is a thing of actorly beauty that concludes with a disruptive burst. Marcus also falls hard for Olivia Hutton (Gadon), a shiksa goddess with a suicidal streak.
Schamus, a longtime producer and screenwriter of many indie-film landmarks (especially those directed by Ang Lee, and the early films by Todd Haynes) directs his first feature film with Indignation. He shows a steady hand, yet the film nevertheless feels cautious and underplayed. There is more a feeling of exasperation that envelops Marcus rather than outright indignation. The film is indeed a cautionary tale, but one that follows its own admonishments too closely.