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'Indignation' is a carefully, deliberately constructed look at the 1950s

Indignation; 110min; Rated R

“Indignation,” an adaptation of Philip Roth’s 2008 novel, is set initially in Newark, New Jersey, and finally Winesburg, Ohio. The year is 1951, and Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) is about to leave the over-protective embrace of his mother, Esther (Linda Emon), and father, Max (Danny Burstein). He has a scholarship to the fictional Winesburg College, which means he has a draft deferment from the Korean War. In fact, the film opens with Marcus and his parents attending the funeral of one of his friends killed in the war.

Marcus is often described by family and friends as “intense.” When he arrives at Winesburg, he finds he is rooming with two other Jews, and he turns down an invitation to join a campus Jewish fraternity. He is there to study, work part-time in the library, and get As. His hope is to become an attorney.

Having a social life is unimportant to him until he spots Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon) in the library, a blond, very WASPy stunner from an affluent family and seemingly unattainable. He finds the courage to ask her out to dinner, and afterward they park in a dark cemetery where she unexpectedly, even casually, performs oral sex on Marcus. His narrow life, up to that moment, renders him completely unprepared for Olivia, and he bridles, suddenly filled with uncertainty while simultaneously being strongly attracted to her. He also senses that she is, in a way that is beyond his own life’s experience, damaged.

“Indignation,” as a title (of both the film and the book) is both fitting and then again ill-fitting. Marcus is not perpetually indignant. Intelligent, independent-minded and even courageous would characterize him as he tries to adjust to the staunchly conservative college that has, perhaps typical of that time, a patina of covert anti-Semitism.

There is one scene in the film that crackles with meaning and relies on nothing other than language. It is essentially a 16-minute conversation — or better put, a cross-examination. Marcus is called into the talk to Dean Hawes Caldwell (Tracy Letts) who has observed that Marcus has chosen to leave his initially assigned three-man dorm room for a single room in a far-older building.

The dean begins what initially appears to be a benign inquiry as to how Marcus is getting on at the college. But slowly the tension in the room becomes palpable as the young man resists the dean’s invasive questioning. Marcus soon finds himself defending Bertrand Russell’s essay, “Why I Am Not a Christian,” explaining that he is an atheist and wonders why, in order to graduate, he must attend weekly chapel that has a decidedly Christian slant. The dialogue is rich with meaning, and finally currents of animosity infuse what is a judgmental tone on the part of the dean, one that is layered with implicit anti-Semitism.

“Indignation” is a period film that is carefully and deliberately constructed, in some ways a coming-of-age story that is episodic and captivating. It feels like a film that would have been written and shot in the '50s, for so much of its meaning is implied and suggested, a quiet meditation on those intersections in our lives that when they occur, their meaning can often seem elusive. Marcus is confronted with such a crossroads. How he responds, ultimately, changes his life.

This is a beautifully crafted film, enigmatic, filled with fine performances and very accessible.