James Schamus, a producer best known for his Oscar winning work with Ang Lee, makes his directorial debut with “Indgination.” The story of a young man’s coming-of-age isn’t a case of style over substance—it has both in spades—but of character over plot.
Based on Philip Roth’s novel of the same name, “Indignation” is the story of Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), a young working class Jewish man who earns a scholarship to the WASPy Winesburg College in Ohio. It’s 1951 and his enrolment in school keeps him from being drafted to fight in Korea and out from under the thumb of his over protective father.
A studious young man—his roommate says, “He’s a scholar who doesn’t have time for frivolities like the theatre.”—he immerses himself in his classes to the exclusion of almost everything else. The only break in his concentration comes in the form of Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gaddon), a beautiful classmate whose charms, both physically and intellectually, distract him from his work.
On their first and only date something happens (NO SPOILERS HERE) that plunge Marcus into previously uncharted personal territory. Eventually his intensity toward his schooling and Olivia draws the attention of Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts), which threatens his place within the school and provides the film with its best scene.
Like other adaptations of Roth’s work “Indignation” is filled with richly drawn characters. Where it falls down is in the storytelling. Roth’s novel is a personal piece of work loosely based on his own 1950s college experience. It’s a look at life’s decisions and their consequences, intellectual purity and sexual discovery, all themes touched on in the film but without the benefit of Roth’s investigative, haunting prose.
What does shine through are the characters. In a break-out role Lerman holds the center of the movie, doing formidable work in scenes opposite Gaddon and Letts. His scenes with Gaddon brim with sexual attraction touched with longing and sadness but it is with Letts that Lerman does his best work. A mid-movie tour-de-force sees the two showdown in the moralistic Dean’s office, arguing everything from baseball to Bertrand Russell. The verbally jousting is the film’s high point; a lovely bit of acting that could stand on its own as a short film.
“Indignation” is about truth and consequences, unspoken love and inexperience, but mostly its about great acting from a fine cast.