“Indignation” tells a very particular story, one that’s bittersweet, heartbreaking and bleakly comic all at once, and it gets it right.
An impressive directing debut for James Schamus and a glowing showcase for costars Logan Lerman and Sarah Gadon, the film’s guiding spirit is the novelistic world of Philip Roth, and “Indignation’s” ability to capture that very specific milieu emphasizes not its particularity but how universal its concerns are.
Adapted by Schamus from the author’s 2008 novel and 29th book, “Indignation” is a melancholy, star-crossed romance laced with Roth’s piercing sense of humor. Dealing with the mutual intoxication and incomprehension of young love and the inexorable way life has its pitiless way with us, it’s so truthfully done that the rich emotion behind its story is allowed to flower.
Though he’s never directed before, Schamus has done almost everything else in the independent film world, from producing and screenwriting (he was Oscar-nominated for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) to being for many years CEO of Focus Features.
That experience has clearly given Schamus specific ideas of what goes into a successful film, starting with spending time to nail down the story’s physical setting and its psychological environment.
“Indignation” is set in 1951, first in the insular Jewish community of Newark, N.J., then in the WASP environs of Ohio’s Winesburg College, where protagonist Marcus Messner (in a journey paralleling Roth’s from Newark to Bucknell) experiences life as an incoming freshman.
Convincingly played by Lerman, Messner, known as Marky to his parents, is a very smart and serious young man, “the nicest boy in the world,” according to his mother. But, earnest and an idealist, he is fated to find the American world outside of Jewish Newark a difficult place to negotiate.
Marcus is heading off to college at an especially fraught time, the middle of the Korean War, and “Indignation” in fact opens with the funeral of one of his high-school classmates, a fate Marcus hopes to avoid by studying in Ohio. “How will you keep kosher there?” a neighbor asks, just as if Marcus was headed for the Moon.
Schamus has a fine ear for the language and intonations of this ethnic enclave and has cast actors who handle it expertly, especially Linda Emond as Marcus’ mother and Danny Burstein, currently starring in the Broadway revival of “Fiddler on the Roof,” as his father.
Marcus has always been close to his butcher father, the Messner in Messner’s Meat & Poultry, but as the son’s departure for college gets closer, his father begins to get unhinged, obsessively worrying about his son’s fate in the wider world.
“The tiniest mistake can have consequences,” he ominously warns him. “Just be careful.”
Winesburg College (named with a nod to writer Sherwood Anderson) turns out to be a typical 1950s place where men wear white bucks, women have curfews and everyone is expected to attend chapel. Rooming in a triple with the only two Jews who don’t live in the Jewish fraternity house, Marcus would love to concentrate on his studies, but then he sees Olivia Hutton.
Impeccably played by Gadon, a David Cronenberg regular, Olivia is the ultimate Gentile goddess, a poised and luminous blond, a transfer student from Mt. Holyoke no less, who is as intrigued by Marcus as he is by her.
But, very much like Marcus, Olivia turns out to be a fragile individual with her own problems. The two go out on a proper date and its after-effects so unnerve Marcus they end up turning his world, and his very life, upside down.
One of the characteristics of writer-director Schamus’ evocation of this universe is his attention to language. Great torrents of words pour from the characters, and never more so than in Marcus’ face-off against his bete noir, the college’s meddlesome Dean of Men (Tracy Letts), a confrontation that took up a full 14 pages of the script.
Very much a character-driven film, “Indignation” focuses on its young protagonists as they movingly attempt to determine who they are both as individuals and as a possible couple.
They also must finally confront the reality of, as Roth pointedly writes in the novel’s conclusion, “the terrible, the incomprehensible way one’s most banal, incidental, even comical choices achieve the most disproportionate result.” Life, so it turns out, has a tendency to demand a price from us we are unprepared to pay.
MPAA rating: R, for sexual content and some language.
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.
Playing: Arclight, Hollywood, Landmark, West Los Angeles.
Critic’s Choice. “Indignation.” Adapted by director James Schamus from the Philip Roth novel and starring Logan Lerman and Sarah Gadon, this is a melancholy, star-crossed romance laced with Roth’s piercing sense of humor. - Kenneth Turan