Indignation (2016) / Drama

MPAA Rated: R for sexual content and some language
Running Time: 110 min.

Cast: Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon, Tracy Letts, Linda Emond, David Burstein, Ben Rosenfield
Director: James Schamus
Screenplay: James Schamus (based on the novel by Philip Roth)

Review published August 24, 2016

Set in 1951, Logan Lerman (Fury, Noah) plays Marcus Messner, an incoming Jewish college transfer at Ohio's small but prestigious Winesberg College during a time when many of his friends are fighting in the Korean War.  He must overcome the influence of his overprotective parents from his home town of Newark, New Jersey, and the powers that be at the school in order to try to be his own person, with his own beliefs, and sense of autonomy he's never been given before.  The sheltered lad ends up dating a non-conformist classmate named Olivia Hutton (Gadon, Dracula Untold), whose struggles with her own sanity has been a challenge, but to whom he can't help but be drawn to.  It soon becomes a trying time for Marcus at his new school, with sexual confusion, loud and intrusive roommates, controlling parents, and Dean Hawes Caudwell (Letts, Elvis & Nixon), the school administrator who doesn't take kindly to Marcus's inability to assimilate properly to the environment of the conservative school.  Indignation ensues.

First-time director James Schamus adeptly adapts Philip Roth's 2008 novel of the same name, the famed author who regularly explores dramas of anxiety-stricken, dysfunctional people.  Although spending many years as a producer (a former CEO of Focus Features) and screenwriter (penning some of Ang Lee's most notable works), his first time at the helm shows he has a talent for putting together a well-crafted and compelling film as a director as well.  Shooting on a modest budget, Schamus gets the best out of this period piece in terms of a quality cast of actors (Lerman even gets a producer credit), great costume and hair design, cars and sets, and overall sense of the period. 

While the film moves along with ease and finesse as a drama, the story doesn't become absorbing until the appearance of mysterious but alluring Olivia in virginal Marcus's life (Gadon is terrific), showcasing the kind of attraction and attempt at romance that feels fresh and unique, without resorting to the overindulgence of nostalgia for the era.  However, as interesting as the relationship is between the straight-arrow Marcus and damaged Olivia, the grip of the film becomes intense, unnerving, and somehow funny when Marcus finds himself in the office of the shrewd and prying Dean Caudwell, who engages Marcus' mind in an intense game of rhetorical debate that seemingly won't stop until someone expires (the densely wordy interaction takes over fifteen minutes of screen time), hurling fastball after fastball, just to see if Marcus can stomach staying in the batters box without striking out.  To use another sports metaphor, the very lengthy sequence is akin to watching a passive-aggressive mental sparring match between a heavyweight champion and a hungry but talented up-and-comer, with Letts owning the character so completely, you probably wouldn't mind a spin-off movie just observing such a complex character dealing with a host of issues with his student populace.

Linda Emond (The Family Fang) is also very strong as Marcus' mother Esther, in a fantastic late-developing scene in which she fiercely tries to coerce Marcus to make a very specific life decision to avoid the proverbial iceberg she sees him speeding toward all too well.  After this key spellbinding interaction, the film's momentum begins to peter out as it approaches its conclusion, as an anguished Marcus tries to search his soul for what to do next in his life, with another meeting with Dean Caudwell that doesn't quite make sense for him to voluntarily seek, and a deflating final few shots that seeks to tie up the story in a means that isn't quite earned.  However, by that point, Schamus and company has scored more than enough points in the film's favor to make it one of 2016's better releases, with richly nuanced characterizations, mesmerizing performances, sumptuous cinematography, and a wonderful sense of period aesthetics.  It's an absorbing, downbeat coming-of-age melodrama well worth seeking out.

Qwipster's rating:

2016 Vince Leo