[This is a re-post of my Indignation review from the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. The movie opens in limited release today.]
It’s been clear since The Perks of Being a Wallflower that Logan Lerman is an incredibly talented actor, and while the WWII-set Fury further showcased the actor’s knack for sensitive, introspective performances, writer/director James Schamus’ handsomely crafted Philip Roth adaptation Indignation finally gives Lerman a chance to show his range as a performer, and boy does he soar in what is a career-best turn. Anchored by an exquisitely crafted script and fine-tuned aesthetics, Indignation offers a compelling twist on the coming-of-age genre with intelligence and wit to spare, though its stoic grip keeps the emotions at a distance.
Based on the Philip Roth novel of the same name, the film begins in 1951 as Marcus Messner (Lerman), a precocious young Jewish boy, is about to enter college life and, by extension, avoid being drafted for the Korean War. His father begins to worry incessantly about the well-being of his child, but Marcus is an impeccable student who has no problems with his studies. He is set up with two other Jewish boys as roommates at the predominantly Christian college (all students are required to attention 10 chapel sessions a year), and while Marcus is friendly enough, he maintains a distance from becoming too familiar with his peers.
That is, until he meets Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), a gorgeous gentile who shares a class and stolen looks with Marcus. The two go out on a first date, but the conversation is at times stilted as the admittedly odd Olivia calls things out as she seems them, essentially daring Marcus to reveal more to her about his life. Gadon’s performance here is perfectly pitched, refusing to delve into “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” territory but maintaining the somewhat alien presence of Olivia. As the date winds to a close, Olivia suggests they go park in a cemetery where she proceeds to perform a surprising sexual act on Marcus.
Marcus is bewildered by the sequence of events that led to this moment, and spends the next few days puzzling over exactly why she chose to do what she did. Meanwhile, Olivia is embarrassed and offended by Marcus’ distance, and reveals to him that she had previously attempted suicide and spent time in a sanitarium. As the story progresses, Olivia opens Marcus up in a new way and the two then begin a strange but sweet courtship.
As all of this is going on, Marcus is also dealing with the stress of his father’s worry, his roommates’ teasing, and issues with the school’s dean. Indeed, perhaps the centerpiece of the picture is an extended dialogue sequence between Marcus and the dean (Tracy Letts) that is dripping with beautiful verbiage and electric sparring. Lerman and Letts deliver tremendous performances throughout the film, but this scene in particular is like setting fire to a lively debate transcript and seeing it come alive in front of your eyes. They are transcendent.
The maturity that Lerman displays onscreen in the film is something he hasn’t yet been able to do on film, and he proves to be a much more dimensional and complex actor than one might expect. We know he can play the innocent young man or the reluctant hero, but seeing Lerman play someone with edge, someone who is at times a bit of a prick is a delight—this guy could be on track to become one of the best actors of his generation, provided he’s given the material with which to shine.
Speaking of which, while James Schamus is a screenwriting veteran having penned the scripts for Ang Lee pics like Hulk and Lust, Caution, this marks his directorial debut. Schamus’ tenure as the CEO of Focus Features led some to doubt whether he could make the leap to filmmaker himself, but he proves to be a fine fit for the director’s chair, corralling his ensemble with ease and crafting an absolutely gorgeous frame with cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt.
However, the film is perhaps too handsome, as the stoicism with which the story is captured results in a bit of a distance from the emotional investment in the characters. The picture is intensely handsome to be sure, but it’s almost like a painting that’s been put in too formal of a frame. It’s an admirable and promising first effort from Schamus, and I look forward to seeing him get behind the camera many times in the future.
While the preciousness of the film left me a bit cold, there’s no denying that Indignation is exquisitely crafted. Moreover, Logan Lerman is terrific in what could be a launching pad for his career, brilliantly displaying the actor’s range. Gadon provides a fascinating foil for the character of Marcus, and deserves plenty of praise herself for fleshing Olivia out as a real human being with complex emotions as opposed to a simple “strange bird.” This is a coming-of-age tale as only Philip Roth could craft it, and the thematic complexity and overall ambiguous nature of the film’s narrative allows the audience to think rather than be spoon-fed every single beat. As far as first features go, Indignation is unique, commendable, and incredibly promising.