Posted by Joel Copling on August 18, 2016

If summer blockbusters were made of conversations and not explosions, "Indignation" would be a particularly thrilling one. Part of that might have to do with Philip Roth's novel, on which the film is based. Having not read said novel, I cannot give testimony to this claim, but one suspects, from the modest (but detailed) production design to the muted (but attractive) cinematography, that writer/director James Schamus has accurately adapted Roth's work. Long stretches here are of literate dialogue between intelligent people, and our hero is such a person, albeit a person under the heaviest strain. By the time an interfering headmaster and a flirtatious member of the opposite sex come into the picture, we have already gotten a sense of the young man's character.

Marcus (Logan Lerman) is a Jew in 1951, and if you're doing the math, that's only six years removed from the end of the war during which Jews were relegated to concentration camps and, sometimes, even worse fates. The political climate is thick with paranoia about Communism, to the point that, when one of Marcus' two roommates plays a song with lyrics that are sympathetic to the far-right political commitment on his phonograph, the other roommate reminds him of that political climate as it pertains specifically to Winesburg College, the institution at which Marcus is now a freshman. His scholarship from a religious temple back home in Newark allowed him to dodge the draft and the fate that has awaited his friends in Korea. But Marcus is a nonpracticing Jew with leanings away from religion, an institution he finds limited and intellectually insulting (He idolizes Bertrand Russell's essay on the subject).

We get the sense that his parents (Danny Burstein and a very good Linda Emond) are not aware of that element of his life. They care, though, for his well-being, Dad perhaps a bit too much. Phone calls within the first month of his established routine of school work and a menial library job are merely an interruption. A social life is not a priority, although he works up the courage to ask out Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), a very pretty fellow student in his American History Until 1865 class who is more than -- perhaps too -- willing to reciprocate the attraction. His living situation changes, forcing him to move dormitories and catching the eye of the overly watchful headmaster, Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts), who confronts Marcus in an extended tete-a-tete that is simply thrilling to watch.

Scenes like that are elevated to set pieces in this particular screenplay, and it helps to have actors up to the task. Lerman continues his mission of proving himself one of the best actors of his generation, effectively conveying Marcus' stubborn but well-considered independence as a gifted student and an ethical mind, Gadon is radiant as a young woman with deep-seated issues in her own past, and Letts steals the entire show as a man whose considerate, thoughtful outer shell is just masking a desire to pry where no so-called "authority figure" should. There is a dryness to the filmmaking here that might turn some off, and there is the occasional instance of Schamus choosing to tell, rather than to show, but "Indignation" is about good, flawed people stuck in the claws of a world from which they have moved forward.

Film Information

Logan Lerman (Marcus), Sarah Gadon (Olivia Hutton), Tracy Letts (Dean Caudwell), Linda Emond (Esther).

Directed and written by James Schamus, based on the novel by Philip Roth.

Rated R (sexual content, language).

110 minutes.

Released in select cities on July 29, 2016.