Dir. James Schamus. U.S. 2016

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Fitting certain decades into neat little categories are repeated often enough that they have become unquestioned clichés, for example, the 50s were an age of conformity, the 60s an age of youth revolt, and the 70s the so-called “Me Generation.” As in all generalizations, there is some aspect of truth even when there is a different reality that does not fit into the stereotypes. Based on the novel by Philip Roth, first-time director James Schamus’ Indignation is the story of an individual who was willing to challenge prevailing attitudes. Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) is a young Jewish intellectual brought up in a liberal environment who struggles to find his voice in an Ohio college that is a bastion of social conservatism.

Set in 1951 in Newark, N.J., tired of having to cope with the anxieties of his parents, dad Max (Danny Burstein), a kosher butcher, and mom Esther (Linda Emond) about going off to fight in the Korean War, Marcus enrolls on a scholarship to the fictional Winesburg College in Ohio, a school whose social and cultural attitudes present a hefty challenge. Marcus is intellectually precocious but socially constrained and sexually repressed and the breakout performance by Logan Lerman (“The Perks of Being a Wallflower”) fully captures him in all his Rothian complexity.

The fact that he has two Jewish roommates, Bert (Ben Rosenfield) and Ron (Philip Ettinger) is of very little comfort since they are both obnoxious hypocrites. Marcus is very cautious about his social activities, declining an invitation by Sonny Cottler (Pico Alexander) to join the Jewish fraternity.  When he goes on a date with Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), an “experienced” blond-haired Gentile who shocks him by performing oral sex on him, an action in which the confused Marcus wasn’t sure if he was coming or going. Overly concerned about what may have been the damage to his Cadillac LaSalle that Marcus borrowed, Ron reacts by punching his roommate in the mouth. Needless to say, this does not endear him to his dorm mates and prompts Marcus to find quieter living arrangements - by himself.

This action prompts a call from the self-righteous Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts) to come in for an interview that takes fifteen minutes of screen time, a tour-de-farce (sic) which is both sad and funny and a master class in turning verbal sparring into an art form. While the Dean takes a welcome interest in Marcus, the interview turns into a riff on the Spanish Inquisition as the student is bombarded with questions about his application for school - why his father’s occupation was listed as “butcher” rather than as “kosher butcher,” why he did not put Jewish as his religious preference, why he couldn’t work out his differences with his roommates, and why he has had only one date since school started. The only thing he wasn’t asked is whether or not he was circumcised.

Sputtering and obsequious at first, Marcus gains strength as the interview goes on. Showing that, as Romain Rolland put it in “Jean-Christophe,” he is not a sheep but a wolf that has teeth and wasn’t made for the pasture, he lets the good Dean know in no uncertain terms that, as an atheist, he resents being forced to attend chapel services at least ten times a year and vigorously asserts his atheism by citing Bertrand Russell (whose character the Dean attacks), and lets the old boy know that he is his own man and that if he wants to move away from his insufferable roommates, he will do just that. Vomiting on the Dean’s trophies and collapsing from the pain of an appendicitis attack was not in his plan, however, but life has a way of deciding the lessons it wants to teach.

Marcus is unwilling to let the good times roll and his relationship with Olivia takes a darker turn when he finds out that she has had a troubled past and once tried to commit suicide, though we never learn any details. Though their connection is deep and Marcus is a young man whose head is screwed on right, his continued revolt against authority and conflict with his parents does not serve him well. As philosopher Henri Bergson said, “Each step of the journey is made by following the heart instead of following the crowd and by choosing knowledge over the veils of ignorance.” Though Indignation is a slow burn that keeps the lid on its emotions, it ultimately succeeds in moving us deeply. Much more than another corporate product with an uplifting message to make sure that waterworks turn into greenbacks, it is a sincere and heartfelt film that illuminates the struggle against a suffocating conformity, a struggle that is just as relevant today as it was in 1950.


Howard Schumann

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