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