In­dig­na­tion

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IN­DIG­NA­TION, com­ing-of-age drama, rated R, Vi­o­let Crown, 3.5 chiles

Philip Roth is no stranger to the topic of Jewish guilt, and it runs like a freshet through his fic­tion­al­ized rec­ol­lec­tions of his fresh­man year in col­lege, as brought to the screen by in­dus­try veteran and fea­ture-di­rect­ing vir­gin James Schamus.

A word about Schamus, who may have the deep­est re­sumé ever brought to the ta­ble by a first-fea­ture di­rec­tor. He’s the for­mer CEO of Fo­cus Fea­tures, one of the pres­tige indie stu­dios of the last quar­ter­century. He’s an Os­car-nom­i­nated screen­writer and pro­ducer (Crouch­ing Tiger, Hid­den Dragon; Broke­back Moun­tain) who has col­lab­o­rated fre­quently with Ang Lee and other top directors. So when he pulled his di­rec­tor’s chair up to the cam­era for his de­but, he knew what he was about.

In­dig­na­tion is about a num­ber of things, but near the top of the list are the choices we make, and their con­se­quences. At the film’s be­gin­ning, against the im­age of a woman star­ing at the wall­pa­per in an old-age home, a set­ting we will not fully un­der­stand un­til the end, a voice-over ru­mi­nates on causal­ity, on “the decisions you have per­son­ally made .... How do you end up here, on this ex­act day, at this ex­act time, with this spe­cific event hap­pen­ing to you?”

The body of the film is set in 1951, and we meet our pro­tag­o­nist, eigh­teen-year-old Mar­cus Mess­ner (Lo­gan Ler­man, Fury), and his fam­ily at the Ne­wark, New Jersey fu­neral of a high school class­mate re­turn­ing in a cof­fin from the Korean War. We spend enough time in Ne­wark to es­tab­lish the Jewish iden­tity of the Mess­ner fam­ily and en­vi­ron­ment. Mar­cus is a smart kid, a straight-A stu­dent, and to escape the draft that will en­snare many of his buddies, he en­rolls in the very WASPy Wi­nes­burg Col­lege in Ohio. There’s no very per­sua­sive rea­son laid out for why he chooses Wi­nes­burg, a Mid­west­ern Chris­tian col­lege thin on Jews and heavy on com­pul­sory chapel for all (“How will you keep kosher there?” a con­cerned neigh­bor wor­ries), but pre­sum­ably it fol­lows the ex­pe­ri­ence of Roth (who at­tended Buck­nell).

Mar­cus works for his fa­ther (Danny Burstein) in his kosher butcher shop. They have a good re­la­tion­ship, but Mr. Mess­ner be­gins to grow in­creas­ingly odd and pro­tec­tively para­noid as the time grows closer for Mar­cus to leave home. His part­ing ad­vice echoes one of the story’s re­cur­ring themes: “The tini­est mis­take can have con­se­quences,” he warns his son. “Just be care­ful.”

Mar­cus is as­signed a room with a cou­ple of up­per­class­men (Philip Et­tinger and Ben Rosen­field), who are the only two Jews not liv­ing in the col­lege’s Jewish fra­ter­nity. He’s sin­gle-minded about his stud­ies un­til he meets Olivia Hut­ton (Sarah Gadon), a shiksa god­dess who shares one of his classes. But their first date ends with a spe­cial oral bonus he nei­ther re­quested nor ex­pected, and it throws him for a loop. Mar­cus, in­ex­pe­ri­enced in sex, dis­cov­ers that it feels good but arouses deep feel­ings of guilt and sus­pi­cion. Why would a nice girl do some­thing like that? He con­cludes that it must have some­thing to do with her par­ents be­ing di­vorced.

An al­ter­ca­tion with his room­mates prompts Mar­cus to re­quest a room change. There’s a grungy lit­tle gar­ret space avail­able on cam­pus, but to make the switch, he must en­dure an in­ter­view with the col­lege’s Dean Caud­well (a won­der­ful Tracy Letts, chan­nel­ing John Lith­gow) to de­ter­mine whether and to what de­gree he is so­cially mal­ad­justed. This set piece, which takes up a large chunk of the cen­ter of the film, pro­vides abun­dant in­sights into the character of the col­lege, the dean, and Mar­cus him­self, a po­lite and se­ri­ous young man, but one who has a fi­nite boil­ing point for in­dig­na­tion when he feels he’s be­ing shab­bily treated.

In­tel­li­gence is a dis­tin­guish­ing fac­tor in this movie — the in­tel­li­gence of Schamus’ adap­ta­tion of Roth’s 2008 novel, and the sure-footed pre­ci­sion of his di­rec­tion. Schamus is also served im­pec­ca­bly by his cast­ing choices, start­ing with Ler­man. He plays Mar­cus with self-re­spect, with­out the flus­tered, floun­der­ing in­se­cu­rity that so of­ten comes with this kind of role. He’s a kid, and he can’t escape it en­tirely, but he doesn’t play it up. Equally good is the beau­ti­ful Gadon (Maps to the Stars), who blends Olivia’s fragility with an as­sured sex­u­al­ity, and lets you glimpse the shad­ows be­neath the sur­face. And Letts, who is best known as the play­wright of Au­gust:

Osage County, is mar­velous as the some­what over­bear­ing but well-mean­ing dean, who is in­ca­pable of un­der­stand­ing a crea­ture as com­plex and for­eign, at least to the ivied halls of Wi­nes­burg, as Mar­cus.

The ul­ti­mate turn­ing point in this com­ing-of-age tale of a fish out of wa­ter ar­rives with a visit to the cam­pus by Mar­cus’ mother (Linda Emond). Mom sizes up the sit­u­a­tion with Olivia, lays down an edict, and ex­tracts a solemn prom­ise. It fol­lows fore­see­able lines, but not nec­es­sar­ily for the rea­sons you might have ex­pected. And it leads, as we have been warned, to con­se­quences. — Jon­athan Richards

Port­noy’s com­plaint strikes again: Sarah Gadon and Lo­gan Ler­man

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