Tara Coughlin ’19
College is often considered a teenager’s first transition into adulthood and independence, but we often forget that there existed a time when college-age students were already as mature and even jaded as many fully-grown adults. James Schamus explores this in his adaptation of “Indignation” (2016), based off of the novel by Philip Roth. The film, recently released on DVD, is set during the Korean War in 1951. Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) is a brilliant young Jewish man who is the first in his family to attend college, and he avoids the draft in the process. Arriving at school in Ohio, Marcus struggles to fit in with the school’s conformity and mandatory chapel attendance, particularly because he is secretly an atheist. His life also drastically alters when he first sees the angelic beauty Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), and discovers that there is more to her than meets the eye.
Traditionally filmed and often using single point of view perspective shots, Schamus’s film excels in allowing the dialogue and acting to carry the majority of the scenes, a style of directing that is not always easy to accomplish. The humane performances and intelligently-adapted script lend themselves well to this. Logan Lerman proves here that he is a young actor to watch in the future, as his performance as Marcus shows that he is more than capable of transitioning from young-adult films into adult drama. Quiet and intelligent, Lerman effectively portrays both Marcus’s maturity and inexperience. With a hushed New Jersey accent and a slightly hunched posture, Lerman shows a young man who could only be found at a time when parental and adult protectiveness of teenagers bordered on the possessive, and the chances and opportunities for new experiences were repressed.
Sarah Gadon’s performance was also excellent as the blonde and perfectly coiffed Olivia. At first a beautiful enigma to Marcus, the audience soon becomes aware that her fierce intelligence and worldliness is only matched by the instability that lies beneath. Gadon excellently portrays this in Olivia’s glowing smile and the unsettling sense that her mood could change in an instant. Noticing a scar on Olivia’s wrist, Marcus’s mother (Linda Emond) tells him to break up with Olivia, in a beautifully acted scene showing the depth of love between mother and son.
The directing and acting reach its peak during a ten-minute scene in which Marcus meets with Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts) and a battle of minds and opinions ensues. With very few changes in camera angles, the scene excellently builds in engagement and tension as Marcus begins the scene explaining why he wants to transfer dorms and ends with him justifying his reasons for being an atheist. In a time where rebelling against societal norms was rare and difficult, one had to be ready to defend their beliefs. The scene ends in a humorously grotesque way, but to my surprise it would not be the last shocking thing Marcus does in Caudwell’s office.
A fascinating peek into young adulthood in the 1950s, “Indignation” is a well-directed film that creates engagement between the audience and characters by virtue of its compelling script and confident, engaging performances. The film expertly highlights the weighty concerns of American college students in 1951. It really puts the worry of deciding what to watch on Netflix into perspective.