Director: James Schamus
Major Players: Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon, Tracy Letts, Linda Emond
Out Of Five: Four
At the start of this year, we all fell in love with a teenage girl who left home in the 1950s for the biggest adventure of her life. The film was Brooklyn. Indignation, showing at this year’s Sundance London, has the same period setting and the same sense of adventure, discovery and coming of age. But the tone is markedly different.
Much of that is down to a combination of the author of the original book, Philip Roth, and the film’s director James Schamus. Best known as a writer, producer and regular collaborator with Ang Lee (The Ice Storm; Brokeback Mountain; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) this is his first feature film as a director. And one that he described in a recent media interview as his “mid-life crisis”. But it’s also about a teenage crisis.
We’re on Roth’s familiar stomping ground, examining sexuality and what it means to be Jewish. This time the story is set against the backdrop of the Korean War and the audience is never allowed to forget it. Working class Jewish boy Marcus (Logan Lerman) has gone to a small, conservative college so that he can avoid the draft. That’s why a lot of the other students are there. The establishment has its own cadet corps, apparently permanently on parade on the college green, and a constant reminder to the students of what lies outside its walls.
Inside those walls, Marcus does plenty of growing up, learning about sex with help from the beautiful and willing Olivia (Sarah Gadon) and grasping his independence away from home, even if cutting those apron strings are hard for him and even harder for his protective mother (Linda Emond). But the ever-present war plays an even more active role in the story, as it bookends the movie, with Marcus thinking out loud about conflict and death. And, compared to the young man we’ve seen in college, he’s most definitely a man.
It’s a film full of intensity, from Marcus’s feelings for Olivia – even though he, and we, know it’s hopeless – to his own fervent conviction that he’s right about everything and will simply not be told otherwise. Which makes for a gloomy tone, underlined by a smoky palette of sludgy greens and browns from the 50s. None of the bright colours that characterised Brooklyn are anywhere to be seen.
That teenage certainty also plunges him into the film’s highlight, a fifteen minute encounter with the college’s Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts). It’s a glorious intellectual sparring match, all about religion and philosophy, yet it starts innocently enough with a few questions about Marcus’s social life. That doesn’t last long, because we’re soon treated to a scene full of insight and wit, so much so that when a second meeting is on the cards, we can hardly wait.
The performances are strong all round. Lerman is, in turns, appealing, annoying and endearing, as the conflicted Marcus, constantly pulled in different directions. Sarah Gadon’s outward confidence disguises an inner turmoil, but she can’t hide the tell-tale scar on her wrist. Linda Emond as Esther, Marcus’s mother, spots it straight away and, with her husband going downhill before her eyes, she becomes single minded about preventing her son from shackling himself to somebody who is going the same way.
Indignation is a film full of layers, well-rounded characters and plenty to chew on after the credits have rolled. Like many of the other films at Sundance London, a UK release date hasn’t been confirmed, but there are whispers of later this year. Let’s hope those rumours are right.
Indignation is screened at Sundance London on Sunday, 5 June.