Indignation: A Review

Every so often, a film comes around that plain and simply, knocks you for a loop. Released in the dog days of summer (July 29th, to be specific), Indignation is a film which is at home in the much more Academy Award friendly territory of November and December. The little period piece is a stunning piece of cinema. While it’s not going to compete financially with films like Jason Bourne and Bad Moms (films with which Indignation shared a release date), it is a movie that brings something more to the table. It’s a film not to be missed, especially for independent cinema aficionados or those who enjoy the occasional period piece.

The film, which has been making the festival rounds since Sundance, was written and directed by James Schamus. Primarily a producer, Schamus’ credits include: Suffragette, as well as a lengthy working relationship with director Ang Lee on films like Hulk, Lust, Caution and Brokeback Mountain. He has a handful of screenwriting credits (once again, primarily working with Lee). However, according to IMDB, Indignation is his feature-length directing debut, having only two short films to his name prior to going into production on Indignation.

The film follows Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) a butcher’s son from Newark New Jersey, who ventures to Ohio to attend college in 1951. Set against the backdrop of the Korean War, Messner struggles with his own views and expectations of himself, as well as those of 1950s society. He’s not only an only child, but is away from home for the first time. While in school, he meets the beautiful, but mysterious Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon). Marcus isn’t sure what to make of this girl who, has apparently lived a lot in a few short years. The narrative follows these two young people, who can’t seem to make sense of this relationship (which neither has experienced anything similar) while struggling under the weight of the conservative nature of post World War II society.

The role of Marcus is a star making one for Logan Lerman. Lerman has been around Hollywood for almost twenty years, having gotten his start in The Patriot, playing one of Mel Gibson’s sons. Indignation marks (along with 2014’s Fury) Lerman’s transition to adult roles after playing the sons of most of Hollywood’s A-listers from Christian Bale to Mel Gibson and Russell Crowe. You can’t take your eyes off him as Marcus. He tackles the complicated character with ease, managing to convey the wide-eyed naivite of a freshman in college freshly away from his parents, but also incorporating the worldliness of a boy who (in a desire to be more than a butcher’s son) has spent his childhood studying, and developing a knowledge base beyond that of his classmates.

The film features a number of lengthy scenes (a few longer than 5 minutes), which feature a minimalist editing style. This can be tricky in the scope of filmmaking, but Indignation seems to escape any consequences of this style (like slowing up the film). In fact, Lerman in particular stands out in these scenes. He seems particularly at ease, and able to showcase a wide scope of emotions, while remaining a primary focus of the scene due to the lack of cross-cutting.

It is in the development of Marcus’ relationship with Olivia Hutton that we see the conflict in his character. He sees himself as a progressive man, but he can’t crack in his head why this beautiful girl would be so willing to give him oral sex on their first date. The intelligent writing, and well-crafted acting work together to show the unconscious influence the setting has had on these two characters. Marcus continually comes back to Olivia being the product of divorce. Is she a slut? It is in these moments, where we see Marcus as a wide-eyed boy, struggling to distance himself from his upbringing, that Lerman truly shines in the film.

Sarah Gadon has been drifting around Hollywood since 2000, making her way through a number of different television series and movies. Her best known work has come recently, with roles in Dracula Untold, A Royal Night Out and the Hulu series 11.22.1963. While Lerman brings a wide-eyed naivite to Marcus, Gadon portrays an almost world-weary nature to Olivia. This girl has seen a lot, and done alot. However, her behavior also contributes to a weakness within the character, which is likely what appeals to Marcus. Does he see her as a damsel in distress? Olivia talks (primarily through letters) about her suicide attempt, there are references to her drinking, and subsequent hospitalization. It is the complication inherent in the character of Olivia that sets Marcus’ relatively naive head spinning. She remains very much a mystery right up until the end of the film.

The two leads achieve an amazing chemistry together, which is the main strength of the film. Both actors shine in their respective roles, and seemed to legitimately enjoy working with each other. This makes (no spoilers!) the emotional hit of the film’s conclusion all the more difficult to watch, without ugly crying, at least.

Indignation provides a beautiful dpecition of 1950s socety, which contiributes beautifully to the progression of the narrative. Not only is the idyllic period shooting (common especially to films set in the 1950s) absolutely stunning, but the story includes a very layered enviornment, which paints the picture of a decade heavily marred in turmoil. Questions of morality came to the surface very early in the decade, with the founding of Playboy Magazine as well as the landmark, rippling scientific questions raised by the Kinsey reports, coming in 1953. (This is a complicated subject… worthy of a book). Indignation also delves into the political climate of the time. There’s political tension on the horizon (Communism is repeatedly mentioned thoughout the narrative), as well as interesting dialogue raised about the Korean War, which still today, stands as an over-shadowed conflict, stuck between the patriotism of World War II, and the widespread discontent of Vietnam. To make a potentially long analysis much shorter, Indignation does an abosultely amazing job of painting a realistic picture of the 1950s, and as such demonstrates how the environment around these character shapes them.

Indignation is an incredibly courageous and intelligent film, which showcases not only stunning acting, but brilliant writing and direction. It seems a shame that such a film was released in the dog days of summer, and it is my hope that the film sees some love during the coming awards season. Get out there, support smaller films, and go see it.

My Verdict: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

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