indignation_2Year: 2016
Director(s): James Schamus
Writer(s): James Schamus, novel by Philip Roth
Region of Origin: US
Aspect Ratio: 2.00:1
Rating: R
Digital, Color, 110 mins

Synopsis: A Jewish student from New Jersey struggles with sexual repression and cultural disaffection, amid the ongoing Korean War. (Source)

What is life but a relentless succession of seemingly uneventful choices and events, all of which inevitably shape the course of our lives. Indignation, adapted from Philip Roth’s novel by James Schamus, takes a look at this abstract idea of control and complacency, painting a damning indictment of human frailty shaped by fear and intolerance. Stars Logan Lerman and Sarah Gadon are heartbreaking in their repressed roles, each giving the film a depth and fragile humanity that we just can’t look away from. Make no bones about it, the film already seems poised to be one of the year’s most underrated, but Schamus’ directorial debut is not to be missed, impacting through restraint and an assured narrative hand.

Set amidst the Korean War in 1951, the story centers around Marcus (Logan Lerman), a working-class Jewish boy who can’t wait to leave his town just as his friends and colleagues are being sent home in coffins from abroad. Attending a strict, Catholic University in Ohio, Marcus struggles to find friends, focused headfirst on maintaining his immaculate grades and intent on keeping to himself. That plan crumbles when he sets his eyes on a dashing blonde named Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), who sees through him and considers him a kindred spirit. The two go on a date which ends with Olivia performing a shocking sexual act, initially repelling Marcus due to his introversion and preconceived notions. As his atheist views begin to clash with the mandate and indifference of his classmates (and an oppressive Dean), Marcus and Olivia grow closer together as outsiders, but their relationship brings to light some dark truths about the world they live in.

Rather than settling for a simple coming of age story, Schamus’ film shines a light on our very existence, telling a timeless story with ambitious scope. Targeting first and foremost truths we don’t want to admit to, the film highlights issues that are as important today as they’ve ever been – pasts that are impossible to escape, prejudice that is rampant and how tiny compromises can lead to big consequences that are simply out of our control. There’s a very dark, angry but deserved humanity on display, probing our indifference to one another and innate instinct to run rather than see things through, but the film feels as if its proving this point out of compassion rather than simple condemnation. Since the story is told through conversations, Schamus creates tension through inescapable set pieces which find depth within tightly calibrated performances. Rightly so, the forbidden romance at the film’s center never settles for convention, shaped and unwittingly manipulated by bigotry, proving how things really haven’t changed much since then. In the end, we’re left to question who is in the wrong here, Marcus’ headstrong beliefs or an oppressive society that politely says that they cater to him, while punishing him for thinking for himself. We get the feeling that both sides have their faults, two sides of the same coin, or a snake perpetually biting its own tail.

indignation_3Matching the sensitive direction, each performance is layered and full of nuance, but still naturalistic. As Marcus, Logan Lerman comes into his own, delivering a career best of a performance that is painfully haunted and full of conviction. There’s a lot going on in the film at any given time, but Lerman is a suitable anchor, humanizing what’s on screen and investing us fully. As Olivia Hutton, Sarah Gadon is just as complex, portraying the troubled character with an outer elegance which betrays her inner frailty. She’s in many ways a contradiction, but one we understand and sympathize with all too well. Together, Lerman and Gadon make the most of their limited screen time, hanging over each frame in which they don’t appear, and really piercing as two outliers who only find solace with each other. Tracy Letts as Dean Caudwell gets to steal a few scenes, in particular what could be considered as the film’s centerpiece, a showdown between Caudwell and Marcus in which they verbally and mentally spar over differing faiths and ideologies through an extended confrontation. There’s no escape, with us locked in a room as these two go at it – Lerman and Letts are delivering a scene with peak emotions and tension.

The implications of what unfolds during Indignation only becomes more apparent with time and distance. It hits us really hard when we’re experiencing it, but really seeps into our thoughts, challenging and terrifying us to react in one way or another. What Schamus has pulled off here just has to be seen, an adult drama that doesn’t talk down to its audience, carrying with it a message that haunts and just begins as the credits roll.

SG