Indignation (2016) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): An elegiac tale of youth and romance

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Based on the novel of the same name by Philip Roth, “Indignation” engaged me more than I expected. Haunting and poignant as an elegiac tale of youth and romance, the movie is equipped well with evocative period mood and excellent performances, and it also has several calm but memorable dialogue scenes which are some of the most intelligent ones I have ever encountered in this year. This is a smart, thoughtful film where dialogues really convey to us what characters think or feel, and I could not help but pay more attention to those well-written scenes while also observing how deftly they are handled on the screen.

After the prologue part which later turns out to be significant as expected, the movie moves onto the scene where our young working-class hero Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) attends the funeral of one of his neighborhood friends, which is held at the synagogue of their Jewish neighborhood in New Jersey. It is 1951, and that dead friend was one of many young Americans who were sent to the ongoing war in Korea and did not come back alive from there.

In case of Marcus, he does not have to worry because he is going to Winesburg college in Ohio thanks to his scholarship, but his father still cannot help but worry about Marcus. When Marcus comes back to his home late after having some fun with his friends during one evening, he and his father come to argue with each other mainly due to his father’s rather compulsive concern. His father later apologizes to his son, and Marcus understands his father’s emotional state to some degrees, but it is apparent that he aspires to get away from his hometown and parents as soon as possible.

Beginning his first year at Winesburg college, Marcus acquaints himself with his two Jewish roommates, but he is not particularly interested in socializing with others besides them, and that took me back to when I began my first year in the campus of Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in 2000. Like Marcus, I only cared about studying hard, and the interactions between me and my roommates were usually kept to the minimum level as we all were busy for each own business. I was also amused by the scenes of Marcus having a phone conversation with his parents, for they reminded me of when I had to make a routine phone call to my parents during every weekend for confirming them that there was nothing to worry about.

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On one day, someone draws Marcus’ attention. He happens to spot a pretty girl named Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), and he feels attracted to her as he appreciates her alluring presence from the distance at the campus library. To his surprise, she not only agrees to go out with him but also moves toward him faster than he expected, and he comes to experience something he will never forget for the rest of his life.

As a lad who is pretty inexperienced in romantic relationship, Marcus is naturally baffled by Olivia’s forthright approach, but he also becomes drawn more to her – even when she reveals some of her hidden sides and then suggests that they should stop seeing each other. Although Olivia frequently looks vague and elusive as we regard her through Marcus’s viewpoint, Sarah Gadon imbues her character with enough grace and charm, and she and Logan Lerman click together well as two kindred spirits ahead of their time. As they interact more with each other, it becomes clearer to us that Marcus and Olivia too independent-minded for their conservative social surroundings, and it is too bad that the era of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg has not arrived yet for them.

Meanwhile, Marcus finds himself in an adversary position to the dean of the college, who comes to pay extra attention to Marcus just because it seems to him that Marcus is having some problem in adjusting to his new environment. Mainly due to the mandatory chapel attendance demanded to him and all other students in the college, Marcus does not like the dean much. He is an atheist in fact, and he personally feels offended whenever he goes to the campus chapel along with other students.

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As Marcus and the dean talk with each other in the dean’s ornate but stuffy office at one point, they disagree with each other more as adamantly sticking to each own position on religion and faith, and this increasingly dynamic scene virtually sparks with intensity and intelligence until it eventually culminates to a moment which is somehow reminiscent of a similar punchline moment in “Animal House” (1978). Lerman, who has shown more of his considerable potential especially since his heartfelt lead performance in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (2012), is convincing as his character is agitated and frustrated step by step, and Tracy Letts, a veteran actor/playwright who is born to play oppressive authoritarian characters, is formidably unflappable as Lerman’s equal acting match.

“Indignation” is the first film directed by James Schamus, who also adapted Roth’s novel for the movie. Besides participating in the production of many critically acclaimed films as the CEO of Focus Features, Schamus has worked with Ang Lee as his frequent producer/screenplay writer, and “Indignation” shows that he is also a competent director who knows how to engage us via the intelligent handling of story and characters. For instance, Marcus’ parents initially look like stereotypes, but they are allowed to show their own human depth through their respective small moments, and the same thing can be said about the dean, who is not a villain to be despised despite his stiff, overbearing attitude.

Overall, I admire the intelligence of Schamus’ adapted screenplay as well as his restrained but sensitive direction, and I was touched by how the movie comes to make its conclusion effortlessly during its quiet but powerful ending. Life is indeed short and tricky, but we can remember at least, even though we will not matter at all in the end.

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