What James Schamus brings to the table as a first-time director is a wealth of on-set and behind-the-scenes movie knowledge, accrued over years as a respected, prolific producer. It comes as no surprise, then, that his debut feature, Indignation, is a meticulously constructed, well-acted, absorbing period drama that will have audiences crossing their fingers in hopes that Mr. Schamus sticks around at his new day job.
The spark of the story is a fascinating idea about teeny-tiny life decisions having enormous effects on one’s fate. Posing and proving the theory is Marcus Messner, a gifted student living in 1950s Newark, NJ whose immediate mission in life is to get into a good college to avoid the draft (several of his childhood friends have died in the Korean War, a fate Marcus is hellbent on avoiding). A wave of relief hits him when he gets into the conservative Winesburg College in Ohio; not only will he not be drafted, but he’ll also be far, far away from his kosher-butcher father (Danny Burstein) and imperious mother (Linda Emond).
His hope, upon arriving in Ohio, is for his intellect and young-blooded desires to finally be unleashed upon the world in the way his fraught home life never allowed. All he finds, however, are more social restraints: his teachers, fellow students, and even his roommates all seem, from his perspective, to be tying his hands behind his back and telling him precisely how a bright Jewish boy like him should behave.
Suffocating from the newfound pressures of college life, Marcus’ contentious nature begins bubbling to the surface, culminating in a volcanic tête á tête with Dead Caudwell (Tracy Letts) that nearly drives him nutty (a tabletop exchange that is one of the most entertaining, well-written clashes of wits since Tarantino’s undercover pub shootout in Inglorious Basterds).
The sole glimmer of happiness and curiosity in Marcus’ life is an enigmatic, mentally messed-up girl named Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), who makes a habit of alternately shoving kisses and tough life lessons in his perpetually bewildered face. In her he’s found a teenage oasis in the middle of an endless sprawl of nonsensical principles and traditions that bear down on his rationalist philosophies; she’s somewhat unstuck from real-world rubrics, and so is he. Their connection is deep, but Marcus’ attitude threatens constantly to get him into even deeper trouble. His little outbursts and biting retorts against authority ultimately lead him to a fate he’s woefully unprepared for.
Lerman, steered by Schamus’ script, largely avoids the awkward quirkiness so many of his contemporaries have employed in similar, coming-of-age roles. He’s more hysterical and aggressive than neurotic or clumsy, and both he and Schamus imbue the character with more dimension and dark tendencies than most indie heroes of the past ten years have shown. The chemistry with Gadon is there, though there’s a welcome bizarreness to their rapport that feels special and uncommonly mysterious. Both leads are uniformly excellent throughout, which makes the sometimes dense script much easier to digest.
Perhaps the only thing more absorbing than the brilliant young actors at the fore is the magnificent production and costume design. It’s not that the period sets and clothes are gawk-worthy. Quite the opposite: From the moment we see Marcus hacking away at bloody animal parts in his father’s shop, we’re fully absorbed in the time period. It’s an easy sell, which speaks to the designers’ eye for detail and Shamus’ level of restraint in not being showy about the authenticity of any individual prop, garment or locale from the era.
In a word, the overall presentation is tasteful. The script, too, represents the period well, with Schamus capturing the staunch, conservative mentality of the time while beautifully contrasting it with Marcus worldview, which aligns conveniently with the more progressive movements of 2016.
The films Schamus has produced have largely appealed to audiences with an affinity for provocative, intellectually stimulating, philosophically challenging material, and Indignation fits right alongside the best works in his producer’s oeuvre. He captures the richness and male moodiness of Roth’s work and brings it to life with an evocative, cohesive visual sense that most filmmakers only develop several years down the line. Like all indies, Indignation will need the firm support of arthouse audiences if it’s to find the larger platform it deserves.
Schamus' directorial debut is remarkable, capturing the male moodiness of Roth's work. The brilliant young leads only elevate the already rich material.