Philip Roth’s classic novel, Indignation, was a quiet take on a shy young man’s inner angst. The James Schamus’ film adaptation does well in drawing out sympathy and confusion for Marcus Messner, a young, intellectual whose coy nature causes him social anxiety. The film, like the novel, takes place during the Korean War, when young men have to choose between going to university or being drafted. Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) chooses university, but finds the scholarly path is not always the higher one.
Lerman is exceptional as Marcus, and holds the film together by creating a character that is empathetic, despite his prickly, anti-social tendencies. Lerman draws out the subtle vulnerabilities and writhing pain of Marcus through small physical gestures like, tearing eyes or a slight grimace. It is these subtleties that will make any shy person wave their flag in thanks. Often, shyness can be confused for cold and arrogant. Yet, Lerman shows, through Marcus, that some people find it easier to use their mind than their heart, but it is not for a lack of having one. What is so tragic about Marcus, is how deeply he feels about life, but you would not know it if you met him. He hides behind his intelligence and eloquent rhetoric to cover his disabling fear at being open. Yet, when he falls for the lovely and forward Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), Marcus feels free to reveal his heart.
Gabon’s take on Olivia is riveting. There is a brokenness to Olivia that makes you want to hold her, and protect her from 1951 sexism. She is bright and too sexually confident for the both 1950’s and now. She knows and owns her body, in part, because she is not always the owner of her mind. Olivia is a free spirit that, like Marcus, struggles to connect with her surrounding world. What Gabon and Lerman have done is create a charismatic coupling of outcasts. While Marcus does not care what others think of him, Olivia is shattered by others’ opinion. She finds safety in the nonjudgmental behavior of Marcus, and he finds her high, vivacious spirit magnetizing. They both find in each other what they wish they personally had: the strength to feel alive. When the two are together on screen, you want to grab a rosary and pray they stay together. They are two people that understand each other, and can be partners in a time where “free-thinking” could be very rebuked.
Olivia and Marcus’ social anxieties reveal the micro-aggressions that can occur when you are a liberal thinker in a conservative world. Marcus’ is open to all, even if he cannot connect with them. Although raised in a Jewish household, he is atheist, which brings him several issues in his Christian university: Winesburg College. Marcus consistently clashes with the hypocrisies of the university and its claims to welcome all religions and creeds. His tense, awkward conversations with Hawes Caudwell (Tracy Letts) are some of the most intriguing scenes, beyond Marcus’ encounters with Olivia. Caudwell is an annoyingly invasive and arrogantly judgmental human being that shamelessly uses religion to cover his passive aggressive cruelty, and Marcus wants NOTHING to do with it. When Marcus calls him out, you want to applaud, but he does, eventually, pay a price for standing his ground.
The sadness of Indignation is its observation of how standing in your truth or up to the lies of others’ is not always rewarded. Many times our humanity is not seen fully because of a few bad choices or stereotypes on how a human being looks or acts. The relationship of Olivia and Marcus is the union between two fractured souls that were never allowed to be themselves. Indignation will be released in theaters on July 29.