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Indignation

A young Jewish man from New Jersey adjusts to college life in Ohio in 1951

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In 1951, Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), the only child of a kosher butcher in Newark, embarks on his college education at a small school in Ohio. Marcus doesn’t find campus life wholly satisfying: The school is conservative, he resents being lumped with the campus’ few other Jews, and he doesn’t find many friends. Still, this is preferable to where his childhood friends are ending up — on the frontlines in Korea. He does meet the beautiful and troubled Olivia (Sarah Gadon), and their off-and-on relationship keeps him perplexed.

James Schamus’ drama is an adaptation of Philip Roth’s eponymous 2008 novel. As expected, one thread is Marcus’ sexual awakening, though Olivia’s more aggressive sexuality confuses him. Gadon does her best, but the script restricts her character to a plot device for Marcus’ story. Honestly, when you get past the clichéd “troubled daddy’s girl,” Olivia, who is sharp, assertive and iconoclastic in her own quiet way, is likely as interesting as Marcus. But, alas.

The broader story is how the relatively sheltered Marcus anticipates the freedom college life promises, and his frustration when this alien, WASPish and restrictive environment doesn’t deliver. (These were the days when colleges were very much in loco parentis, regulating social behavior as well as academic.) Marcus is a bright kid and something of a free thinker. The film’s showpiece is an extended argument he has with Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts), in which Marcus passionately articulates his positions on collegiate life, religion (he’s an atheist) and more.

The film is not bad, but it’s awfully low-key without offering any mitigating depth. And I’d be remiss not to complain about the terrible framing device (actually, there are two!) that is both utterly unnecessary and, if you’re paying attention, serves as a spoiler of sorts. No shame in telling a story from the beginning. 

Starts Fri., Aug. 12 

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