It’s 1951 and all young men are being drafted for Korea when James Schamus’ new film Indignation begins. While bodies of the fallen continue to tear families to pieces, the only way to escape duty to country is to try to prove that you are too valuable for the battlefield. With a scholarship to a college in Ohio, Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) is able to escape his hometown in Newark, NJ and travel to go to college. As the only son of a Jewish family, the overbearing parents are further burdened by the times of war. With a panic stricken father, who Marcus works for at his butcher shop and a responsibly possessive mother; he can’t get out of his hometown fast enough.
Marcus arrives at college and begins life in the real world, or as real college life can be. With a dramatic socialist and a boring nerd for roommates, we slowly begin to see Marcus come to life. He thwarts attempts by the Jewish fraternity house to recruit him, claiming that his time is too precious and unavailable for anything but his studies and the job he landed at the library. His roommates are friendly enough, but his reclusive self finds it hard to adjust.
Marcus’s story is one of an idealistic young person growing up in the 50s, with some critical thought he shuns religion, focuses on work and logic to drive everything around him. Even the indulgences of theatre and literature seem frivolous to his rather logical tastes. When he finally bumps into the charming and drop-dead gorgeous Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), he is completely taken. He manages to ask her out on a date, but the very first encounter leaves him gasping for logical explanations on why this girl decided to give him a blow job at the end of the very first date.
This is the first time in the film that I felt slightly lost. After the forty odd minutes of Marcus’s evolving/coming of age, the absurdity and incomprehensible nature of Olivia’s act, which finds no resolution for Marcus left me baffled. While the tenderness of age and the romance between the two is easily enticing, the obsessive screentime spent mulling over this one act came across as sloppy. It also acts completely counter intuitive to the basic premise of the story. I am not sure what director James Schamus wanted to accomplish with this bit.
It’s only when Hutton explains herself and then distances from Marcus completely, that there is a sudden realization (and more longing) that Marcus begins to feel for Olivia.
Marcus, through his confusion, confesses to what happened to his roommate. This immature slip-up becomes a point of conflict when he is picked on by his roommates and Hutton is branded a slut on campus. Marcus finds an easily solution to deal with conflict in his close quarters; he decides to move dormitories.
As part of standard check ins at the college, Marcus must meet Dean Caudwell, a rather puritanical figure (played by Tracy Letts), to explain why he felt the need to switch dormitories.
The scene between Marcus and the Dean is charged and hilarious, filled with logical rhetoric and the highlight of the film. From debating the merits of privacy and social interactions to the contributions of Bertrand Russell, Marcus and the Dean argue. Had it not been an appendicitis attack that Marcus suffers, the brawl would have left scars. Marcus’s nascent idealism shines and strikes against the inert wall that is the Dean.
As Marcus heals in the hospital, Olivia visits him and there is mutual discovery that happens. We see the beginnings of a sharing, life, past, experiences. Olivia emerges as the vulnerable and frightened person that she is, Gadon playing her with tender responsibility. And then Marcus’s mother shows up. Her first encounter with Olivia results in disclosure of her mental instability, which results in her forbidding Marcus from seeing Olivia. Interestingly, while Mrs. Messner contemplates divorcing her husband owing to his mental deterioration but then backtracks on the suggestion when she encounters protest from Marcus, she shows little empathy for Olivia.
As the remaining bit of the story unravels, we discover what happens to Olivia and Marcus. Is Marcus able to survive the fault lines he has drawn between the assertion of his atheistic principles and a puritanical college space? He tragically stumbles and falls….
Indignation is a poetic, quiet and tender story, both Gadon and Lerman delivering credible performances, though the film is patchy at times in its screenwriting and directorial delivery. The film made me really think hard on what it means to be an outsider and if there is punishment that must be had, or else you learn to conform. Indignation perhaps is not a privilege that is easily expressed.
Indignation is now playing in theatres.