Forgive me. I know it seems much too early to talk about the Oscars, but we’re getting into that time of year now. So far, 2016 has been all but entirely barren of buzzworthy performances. I have a small handful of favorites, but only one or two that are certain to make the cut on my “Not Oscars” list next year.
The new film Indignation is one of those “wait and see” films, released in spring or summer or early fall, which most people agree has some noteworthy work, but no one’s quite willing to bet on it yet. After all, we know there are bigger, flashier things in the pipeline — Tom Hanks, Viola Davis, Casey Affleck, Denzel Washington, and other familiar faces are attracting plenty of early chatter about their awards chances in forthcoming releases. Nothing in Indignation is quite striking enough to challenge them, but you never quite know how things will pan out. The film has made over $2 million in a smallish release and is playing well with critics and audiences. It’s the kind of film that just might have staying power.
Logan Lerman first popped up on many of our radars in The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, though it was Ezra Miller who stole that particular show. Lerman has been a reliable player in films like Noah and Fury since, but Indignation is the film that finally announces him as an actor to be reckoned with, more than just a pleasant screen presence. Depending on how crowded this year’s Best Actor field is (and it does tend to be a crowded category), he just might find himself there.
In Indignation, Lerman is Marcus Messner, a Jewish boy from New Jersey who starts his freshman year of college at Winesburg, a small Ohio school. Marcus is one of only three Jewish boys who refuses to join the Jewish fraternity, even after a warm invitation from the fraternity’s president, Sonny (Pico Alexander). His roommates are the other two. Marcus is serious about his studies and his job at the school library, distracted by only one thing: Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), the blonde bombshell who sits near him in one of his classes and smirks bemusedly when he challenges the professor. He asks her out, and she agrees. Neither of them have any way of knowing what fateful events this flirtation will spiral toward.
After a pleasant evening of conversation and escargot, Olivia performs oral sex on Marcus in his roommates’ car. Marcus worries that this means Olivia’s a slut, but his roommate Ron (Philip Ettinger) is more bothered by the fact that Marcus would “defile” his precious car in such a manner. This causes a rift with the roommates that eventually leads to Marcus moving out on his own. Meanwhile, Olivia notices that Marcus is avoiding her and assertively clarifies that she is not a slut. She just really liked him. Then Marcus is called into the office of Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts), who has concerns that Marcus is having a hard time fitting in at school. Underlying Caudwell’s assertions is, perhaps, an anti-Semitic bent. At least, Marcus feels that way. The confrontation between them grows heated, setting the stage for further conflict down the line.
In a subtle way, Indignation is all about ego — intellectual ego, to be exact. Marcus is a nice boy, most of the time, but rile him up and he’s no picnic. His pride gets the better of him in interactions with the dean, but keeping his mouth shut would be immensely more beneficial. Marcus may be right that a Jewish-raised atheist shouldn’t have to keep attending Christian mass services in order to graduate; or maybe, Marcus just should’ve picked a different school. Marcus wants his freedom — American audiences are used to rooting for that. Of course, individual freedom comes at the expense of harmony in any community. The denizens of Marcus’ Orthodox hometown in New Jersey want him to be a nice kosher Jewish boy, while the faculty of Wineburg wants him attend mass and shut up about his less conventional beliefs. Marcus isn’t shy, but he is reserved. He’s a wallflower by choice. But in Indignation, it doesn’t behoove anyone to be withdrawn, or to be different, or to go against societal norms. Marcus pays a high price for his independence.
Whether he realizes it or not, that’s what draws him to Olivia. Outwardly, she’s just like any other 1950s co-ed, but Marcus soon learns that she’s hiding antisocial tendencies of her own — she was previously hospitalized following a suicide attempt, and there are serious hints about the origins of Olivia’s pain. Olivia makes for a fascinating love interest, several degrees more complex than the love interest in virtually any other college coming-of-age tale. (Indignation isn’t a coming-of-age tale per se, but it’s dressed up like one.) She’s wiser and more mature than Marcus, but Gadon plays her the same way she’d play a much more straight-laced 50s college girl, a projection of innocence. We know Olivia is not so innocent, however, and that dissonance hints at a disturbance within her that we’re only just scratching the surface of. We want to root for Marcus and Olivia, but we can’t be sure that she isn’t so damaged that it would ruin them both. Marcus’ feelings toward Olivia are similarly contradictory. He enjoys the sexual acts they share together, then judges Olivia for initiating them. As much as Marcus hates to be lumped in with any group, he is holding Olivia to predisposed standards. Marcus is a hypocrite. Perhaps in 2016, a young man like Marcus could appreciate meeting a woman who is equally an outsider in society, possibly even moreso. But in 1951, Olivia is a dangerous anomaly, and he’s not willing to stand up for her when it counts.
The backdrop of Indignation is the Korean war, shown briefly in the beginning of the film in a sequence that feels irrelevant to what’s to come. Of course, it’s not. Marcus is fortunate to avoid the draft because he’s enrolled in college. Both his father and mother attempt to meddle in Marcus’ affairs, fearing for his safety, wanting what’s best for their only son, their pride and joy. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions… and misunderstandings… and blow jobs, according to Indignation. There is no one incident that leads to any character’s ultimate ruin in this film, adapted from the novel by Phillip Roth. Instead, a series of small choices made by well-meaning characters steers Indignation‘s outcasts toward less-than-idyllic futures. Indignation is not a particularly showy film. Much of it unfolds inside the viewer, the same way it would if we were reading the novel. While some of the plot beats are broad in theory, they always unfold in smart, unforeseen ways. We can tell in an instant that Marcus’ mother Esther (Linda Emond) won’t approve of his dating Olivia, but it’s the way she expresses this to Marcus that packs so much of a punch. Indignation is an elegant, unhurried adaptation that hits us with a wallop at the end, in a way that brought to mind Tom Ford’s marvelous A Single Man (my favorite film of 2009).
As it stands now, Indignation is poised to be one of my favorite films of 2016, and could similarly receive some awards season love in certain categories. The performances are superb from top to bottom, with Lerman, Gadon, Emond, and Letts particularly shining. Like A Single Man, this is the directorial debut of a man best known for other things (in that case, Tom Ford; here, James Schamus, Focus Features’ CEO, who also wrote the script). Indignation could be a tad too small-scale to warrant attention from the Academy, though the voting base may well identify with the story of an ambitious Jewish boy growing up in the 1950s. Though it’s too early to predict much, Indignation could slow burn all the way ’til Oscar night.