‘Indignation’ sneaks up on us and emotionally resonates
Writer/director: James Schamus
Starring: Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon and Tracy Letts
“Indignation” – For many valid reasons, one can look back at the 1950s as a prosperous and warm time in America. Manufacturing and housing boomed, and visions of “Leave it to Beaver”, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, and Marilyn Monroe are dancing in my head to Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” when thinking about those “Happy Days”. On the other hand, the Korean War took place from 1950 to 1953, segregation divided schools and the threat of Communism kept a sizable portion of the country awake at night.
For Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), his task at hand was not to contemplate these themes of the day but instead, travel from Newark, N.J. to Ohio and begin his studies – via a scholarship - at Winesburg College in 1951. With a strong working-class background and an intellectually curious persona, Marcus asks insightful questions in the classroom and hits the books very hard, but his upbringing did not prepare him for some of the school’s customs, his unsupportive roommates, an overbearing dean, and most of all, a gorgeous, whip smart coed named Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon). While working at the library on a random weekday evening, Marcus cannot concentrate as Olivia sits at a nearby table and reads her textbooks, while her right leg casually swings back and forth for - seemingly - hours.
Writer/director James Schamus’ wonderfully-crafted film is a story about boy-meets-girl, but Marcus and Olivia’s courtship sails in trying waters due to issues of sexual repression and mental illness. In 1951, these matters were more problematic, because sexual repression was more prevalent and mental illness was less understood.
It is easily understood, however, that Schamus encourages the audience to truly discover the key characters’ motivations, dispositions and behaviors with the film’s purposely relaxed pacing. He takes his time with the material and features several scenes with extended one-on-one conversations with Marcus and his mother (Linda Emond), Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts) and Olivia. The pacing may be relaxed, but the dialogue of ideas between the leads carries a great deal of gravitas, as Marcus attempts to sift through new relationships and experiences. Although Ohio is 500 miles from Newark, it might as well be 5 million, and his only support, his only life raft, his only comfort is Olivia, but ironically, Marcus only partially understands her story.
Olivia – a beautiful, blonde-haired, fair-skinned French literature major – sports a cool, calm temperament, because she knows that she is the smartest person in any room. Gadon’s Olivia masterfully conveys this by always directly addressing Marcus with a quiet intensity when - for example - exclaiming her love of escargots or explaining portions of her sorted history with the hope that he fills in the blanks. Marcus usually doesn’t catch on due to his naivety. This frustrates Olivia, but their connection is real and loving, and as audience member, I found their relationship easy to champion despite their differences. Credit Gadon and Lerman for their layered performances and on-screen chemistry and credit Schamus for fostering these lovely moments of conversation and attraction.
This is a picture which wraps itself in the genuine sights and sounds of the collegiate experience. The leadership delivers their authority with fond odes of tradition, rules and attendance slips, amongst the lush green grounds, beautiful courtyards, formal classrooms, and a sober chapel. The film not only conveys a picturesque setting but offers careful droplets of personal lighting for Olivia and Marcus. We see gentle glows of Olivia in the aforementioned library and similar glimmerings of the two in a French restaurant and also in an emotional dream sequence which captures the hopes and daydreams of true connection.
“Indignation” is a film that sneaks up on us. The movie lulls and nurtures us into this rocky lullaby and discovery of first love but develops into something more, something important and then resonates with deep thoughts of Marcus and Olivia’s precious connection…and our own happy days. (3.5/4 stars)
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.