Film Review: “Indignation” is one of the more quietly poignant films of the year

indignationThere’s a ton of emotion flowing just underneath the surface of Indignation, a wonderful new movie that feels like it’s from a bygone era of cinema. Writer/director James Schamus is able to take the Philip Roth novel of the same name and craft something that just fills your heart to the breaking point. A film that’s not a tearjerker but may very well make you cry, it’s a drama/character study that brings so much to the table that it sneaks up on you. This is a period piece that feels universal in its message, while also shining a very clear light on a specific situation that faced young American men in the early 1950’s.

With strong performances across the board and top notch work behind the scenes, Schamus makes Indignation a full meal. I sat down to this flick expecting something very different than I got, but I mean that as a big time compliment. By the time the finale of the film begins to become clear and you realize what the full message is going to be, it might hit you really hard. I know it hit me in a rather profound way. This is one of the most compelling titles of the summer so far and is excellent counter-programming against wave after wave of mostly underwhelming blockbusters. As it stands now, Indignation is also one of my ten favorite movies of 2016 to date.

Set in 1951, the film follows Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), a working class young Jewish man in Newark, New Jersey. A number of his friends and classmates are going off to die in the Korean War, something that terrifies his father. Marcus is going to college though, which will keep him out of the draft. He’s off to a small college in Ohio, where he’s only one of a handful of jewish students, though he expects no problems. Marcus does have trouble fitting in, only really connecting with the luminous Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), a more experience young woman who brings out in him a sexual repression that he didn’t even realize he had.

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While he fights to understand his urges and Olivia’s openness, he begins clashing with the school’s Dean, Hawes Caudwell (Tracy Letts). Dean Caudwell sees Marcus not fitting in and dealing with a culture clash of sorts and goes about trying to correct that, though they immediately bang heads due to differing viewpoints on just about everything. As he goes about his studies, his interactions with the Dean as well as Olivia will have a lasting impact on him, more so than he could ever know. There’s a lot going on during the 110 minute running time of Indignation, but it earns every single second of it.

050516-mt-indignation2I’ve long admired the work of Logan Lerman, from Fury and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, all the way to his under appreciated supporting turn in Stuck in Love, but this is as good as I’ve ever seen him be. I can say the same for Sarah Gadon and Tracy Letts as well, giving Indignation a trio of powerful performances to play with. Lerman is able to channel the feelings of a 50’s teenager with aplomb, showcasing a willingness to not always be likable in the process.

It’s a complex performance that will constantly keep you intrigued, even if the character’s choices may frustrate you. Gadon will potentially break your heart with her portrait of a woman who has led a life she doesn’t necessarily want. The scenes between the two are just wonderful. As for Tracy Letts, he gives perhaps the Supporting performance of the year so far, notably in a showdown with Lerman. Letts is just a powerhouse, even with only a few scenes to do it in. Supporting players include Danny Burstein, Linda Emond, Philip Ettinger, Noah Robbins, Ben Rosenfeld, and more, though it’s really all about Gadon, Lerman, and Letts here. They give three of the best performances that I’ve seen this year. You’ll undoubtedly come out of this raving about them.

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Filmmaker James Schamus makes an assured directorial debut here after a long and successful career as a screenwriter and head of Focus Features. It’s no surprise that his adaptation of Roth’s novel is magnificently written, but he also shows a tremendous talent for directing as well, creating something that really feels timeless. The centerpiece for me is that long conversation/debate/interrogation between Lerman and Letts which is just a showcase for everyone involved. The dialogue doesn’t quite compare, but the design and feel of it remind me of Aaron Sorkin. It’s a huge credit to Schamus that he makes a scene that’s just a chamber piece work as well as it does. The cinematography by Christopher Blauvelt and the score from Jay Wadley perfectly mesh with what Schamus is trying to achieve. I really can’t wait to see what he decides to make next.

Overall, Indignation is a must see, plain and simple. I can’t recommend it to you enough, especially if you sometimes long for a more classic type of moviemaking. Had this been made in the 1980’s, for example, it would have been a slam dunk Best Picture nominee, if not a winner. I suspect this will prove too small in this era to really contend for much, but it’s deserving, and that’s what counts. Fans of Lerman, fans of period pieces, and fans of powerful filmmaking in general owe it to themselves to see this one. Indignation is something special, take it from me.

GRADE: (★★★½)

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!

About Joey Magidson

When he’s not obsessing over new Oscar predictions on a weekly basis, Joey is seeing between 300 and 350 movies a year. He views the best in order to properly analyze the awards race/season each year, but he also watches the worst for reasons he mostly sums up as "so you all don't have to". In his spare time, you can usually find him complaining about the Jets or the Mets. Still, he lives and dies by film. Joey's a voting member of Indiewire's Criticwire Network as well as the Internet Film Critics Association.
  • Joey Magidson

    It’s just an incredibly moving work that deserves to be seen ASAP!

    • Paul

      What are your ten favorite movies of 2016 so far, Joey?

      • Joey Magidson

        At the moment, not counting an unreleased Tribeca title or two, this is what my ten looks like:

        1. Everybody Wants Some
        2. Deadpool
        3. Sing Street
        4. The Nice Guys
        5. Weiner
        6. Indignation
        7. The Lobster
        8. Cafe Society
        9. 10 Cloverfield Lane
        10. Where to Invade Next

      • Joey Magidson

        I actually forgot to include Captain Fantastic, so this would actually be my up to date ten:

        1. Everybody Wants Some

        2. Deadpool

        3. Sing Street

        4. The Nice Guys

        5. Weiner

        6. Indignation

        7. Captain Fantastic

        8. The Lobster

        9. Cafe Society

        10. 10 Cloverfield Lane