“There’s a lot to admire in Indignation

by Steve Pulaski

The beauty in Indignation, an adaptation of the Philip Roth novel of the same name, which was written with a lot of Roth’s own personal college experiences in mind, is in its mannered and old-fashioned sensibilities that make it look and feel as if a 1950’s novel has real come to life before our eyes. It has a deep-rooted, fascinating fixation on the eloquence of the time in both apparel and speech, and while it paints more of an idealized reality than a realistic (the same way Richard Linklater’s Everybody Want Some!! did for the college experience), it provides us with some of the most romantic and sexually intimate moments of any film this year.

In addition, the film provides us with some of the finest acting of the year, largely from a cast of young stars. Logan Lerman stars as Marcus Messner, a Jewish student from New Jersey who enrolls in Winesburg College, an elite, Catholic private school in Ohio in 1951. A reserved student, with deeply opinionated views on religion and politics, Marcus leaves his overprotective, working class parents in favor of the fabled college life in Ohio. Soon after his arrival, and meeting his strange, off-kilter roommates, he experiences his sexual awakening when he meets the beautiful and wealthy Olivia (Sarah Gadon). In awe but confused as how to appropriately feel, Marcus becomes deeply infatuated, maybe even in love, with Olivia, despite viewing her in an admittedly different light following her move to go down on him so shortly after meeting one another.

Directed by
James Schamus
Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon, Tracy Letts
Release Date
29 July 2016
Steve’s Grade: A-

The film largely revolves around Marcus’s mixed feelings on Olivia and how he goes about handling them, on top of getting into a passive-aggressive exchange with the school dean (Tracy Letts) concerning his subsequent request to change dorm rooms in addition to the role of religion on campus. The scene results in a fifteen minute centerpiece of the film in which Marcus and Dean Hawes D. Caudwell exchange words with one another, some rude, many blunt, all biting and filled with incendiary opinions, as Dean Caudwell turns a simple meeting into a series of character attacks and judgments on Marcus.

All of this is set to the backdrop of the ongoing Korean War and a time in American life where sexual norms and mores are being tested; it’s almost like Paul Mazursky, the underrated director of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, a lovely movie about the same issues, shifted his focus to see how the new generation, at the time, dealt with a sexual awakening and their fabled first times. The funny thing isIndignation doesn’t necessarily tackle sexual intercourse, but another intimate action that can have a similar effect on a man and a woman due to its simple yet effective nature.

Logan Lerman, the “that kid” actor from films like Hoot and The Lightning Thief, has finally been granted a screenplay that exhaustively shows his talents as a convincing actor and his ability to recite copious amounts of monologues with strong conviction. With the words originally written by Roth, an unbelievably talented wordsmith himself who gave language a buttery-like consistency with the way he romanticized even the smallest detail, now written by screenwriter/director James Schamus (also the CEO of Focus Features), Lerman proves what a wonderful and mesmerizing talent he can be. Then there’s Sarah Gadon in a much more mystifying role, playing a character who only gets the time of day when Lerman’s character comes in contact with her. Nonetheless, she’s a knockout in one of the most major minor roles of the entire year.

Then there’s Tracy Letts, who’s performance is solely predicated upon his ability to brood, hurl insulting ad hominem attacks to Marcus, and call on him only to make a mountain out of a molehill. Almost needless to say, he’s pretty terrific too, and his presence in the film can be felt during his lengthy time to shine in the middle of the film, serving as a bold and beautiful climax that echoes that of the thirty minute scene in Mamie-Claire’s home in Noah Baumbach’s Mistress America. While most of Indignation looks and feels like a stageplay, the particular scene between Lerman and Letts really operates like that of compelling theater.

Indignation is also an unbelievably romantic film, with some of the most sexually intimate moments in any film this year. Consider the scene in the infirmary, where a debilitated Marcus’s pain is eased a bit when Olivia shows up, brings him a lovely bouquet of flowers, and proceeds to put her hand under the covers on Marcus’s crotch. A scene that might have indeed played out like a sophomoric bout of raunchiness is instead treated as a passionate and loving exchange of two young people navigating the ways in pleasure and achieving that (even if the argument can be made that the whole film is about Marcus’s comfort and pleasure). The film isn’t so much a depiction or a critique on sexual relations as it is a look at male pleasure, despite positioning it as a series of truly beautiful and passionate moments.

There’s a lot to admire in Indignation from Lerman and Gadon’s beautiful performances, the poetic dialog that flows like it’s a classical poem in balanced meter, and the cinematography (done by Christopher Blauvelt, who has worked on a number of Harmony Korine’s films) that emphasizes the antique and the eloquent. It’s a strong little low-key summer wonder that eases us into the romantic season of Fall, all while giving us enough to chew on in order to avoid being a petty romantic movie.