FILM REVIEW of Indignation by Don Perlgut — Indignation is based on American-Jewish novelist Philip Roth’s autobiographical work published in 2008 that drew on his days at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania.
The film is set in the 1950s as 19-year-old Marcus Messner, the only son of a Newark kosher butcher, leaves home to study at university.
Upon his arrival, Messner finds himself rooming with two other Jewish students. He rebuffs attempts by the only Jewish fraternity on campus (as did Roth in real life) to try and make his own way, quietly and calmly, skipping the opportunity to try out for the baseball team to focus on his studies.
Messner (played by Jewish actor Logan Lerman) is haunted by his excessively anxious parents and does not count on meeting the wealthy and beautiful Olivia Hutton, played by Canadian actress Sarah Gadon, who brings a sassy but delicate beauty to her “femme fatale” role that is reminiscent of the young Lauren Bacall.
After a sexual encounter with Olivia, Messner muses in a -voice-over: “In Newark, it was inconceivable that girls like Olivia Hutton could do such a thing. But in Newark, there were no girls like Olivia Hutton.”
These lines are indicative of Roth’s excellent original writing, nicely adapted for the screen and directed by James Schamus. Although this is Schamus’ directorial debut, he has had a sterling film career as a producer, writer and film academic, frequently working with Ang Lee on projects such as Brokeback Mountain, Lust Caution and Taking Woodstock.
Schamus, who is also Jewish, has assembled an extraordinary cast of budding actors that bring a real freshness to this film. In addition to Lerman and Gadon, Tracey Letts plays the anti-Semitic dean, Hawes Caudwell, of Winesburg College, and Danny Burstein and Linda Emond play Marcus’s parents.
The tense scenes between an increasingly stressed Marcus and a cool, calculating and dogged Caudwell are masterpieces of writing, acting and directing.
Indignation carries a certain old-fashioned quality, with its concerns for the 1950s American-Jewish experience and the genteel anti-Semitism faced by American Jews at the time.
However, because it is far from capturing our current Jewish “cultural moment” in the way that television series such as Transparent have done, it may not attract a large audience.
And that’s a pity, because it is one of the best coming-of-age dramas seen so far this year, made with great care, attention and devotion to Roth’s excellent prose, all done from a thoroughly Jewish perspective.
Indignation is currently screening.