By John Corrado
★★★ (out of 4)
The year is 1951, and Marcus Mesner (Logan Lerman) works at his family’s butcher shop in New Jersey. At the beginning of Indignation, he is going away to a prestigious college in Ohio, partially to avoid being drafted into the ongoing Korean War, which has claimed the lives of many family and friends.
Detaching himself from his clingy father (Danny Burstein) and caring mother (Linda Emond), Marcus is the first one in his family to seek higher education, with aspirations to become a lawyer. But when he starts dating Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), a young woman who has mental health challenges and is more sexually experienced than him, he is taken unwittingly into a culture clash between his socialist ideals and the old fashioned values of the college.
Although shy and having lived a sheltered life, Marcus is an idealist who comes out of his shell when he is forced to defend his principles, becoming a sort of conscientious objector to the social order. Raised in Judaism, but now an atheist, he is one of only a handful of Jewish students at the college, and takes issue with the school’s obligation to attend a weekly Christian service in the chapel, a requirement in order to graduate. One of the film’s best scenes finds him going up against the very conservative Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts) in his office, a thrilling and brilliantly acted war of words that is only cut short when Marcus falls physically ill.
We watch as Marcus gains the confidence to stand by his beliefs over the course of Indignation, and Logan Lerman does an exceptional job of carrying the film, keeping us emotionally involved with a quietly powerful intensity beneath the surface of his character. It’s one of his finest performances since The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and he shares simmering chemistry with Sarah Gadon. The entire ensemble cast is also excellent, with particularly memorable supporting work from Linda Emond and Tracy Letts, who both get a couple of key scenes to shine.
Adapting Philip Roth’s novel to the screen, longtime producer and first time director James Schamus allows the film to have a very literary feel, mostly driven by dialogue and having extended sequences unfold in single locations. The cinematography does a lovely job of evoking the time period, as do the sweaters and autumn-toned production design. The camera also does excellent work subtly revealing power shifts between the characters during many of the two-hander scenes that make up the film, through the actors carefully staged movements within a frame.
Although Indignation is a quiet film, it’s an evocative and haunting work with many moments that continue to linger. This is a period drama that utilizes its brilliant performances to draw us deeper and deeper into the involving story of a student slowly unravelled by his strong ideals and objections to the social norms of the day, before reaching a heartbreaking denouement.
Indignation is now playing in limited release at Cineplex Cinemas Varsity in Toronto.