AH, THE ’50s, we remember them well: the cherry Coke, fries with catsup, “Uncle Miltie,” girls in poodle skirts, saddle shoes and angora sweaters adorned with fraternity pins.

Of course there were two, maybe more, ’50s; one for the rich and one for the poor. Poor boys went to Korea, most against their will, to fight and die for their country. Others chose college, holding on to that deferment for dear life; dear life, indeed.

Our story begins in the future in the Korean countryside and a flowery wallpapered American nursing home, but quickly settles into New Jersey in the troubled Messner home, where no light seems to penetrate the rooms, nor peace the family heart. In rooms that smell of the dampness of lost dreams, and seem to have once belonged to Willie Loman, Father Max Messner (Danny Burstein) nurses his troubled soul and lectures his only son with talmudic asides.

Here, in writer-director James Schamus’ (“Brokeback Mountain”) “Indignation,” we find ourselves in Philip Roth country, probably at the top of the list of great American writers.

Here we have the angry Roth, giving us young Marcus (Logan Lerman), a precocious, brilliant and defiant Jewish boy from New Jersey, who, clearly a Yale or Harvard first pick, elects to attend a small, liberal arts college in Winesboro, Ohio. For Marcus, it’s a minefield, littered with traps of all kinds.

Here, Marcus, atheist, perhaps a future anarchist, eschews the Jewish fraternity or any kind of club, but nevertheless finds himself sharing a cubicle of a room with two Jewish boys.


Marcus’ quiet, strong, noncompliant personality is, of course, a protective shell. Marcus is the basic, somewhat naive son of a kosher butcher, and the first land mine he steps on is Olivia, a cute, blond shiksa (gentile woman) with dark wounds and a fragile psyche hiding behind her preppy blue eyes. Olivia has secrets, too deep and dark to discuss here.

On their first date, in his roommate’s borrowed car, the dominant Olivia rewards him with a goodnight “kiss” unlike any he’s ever known. Clearly this is his first encounter with a nonkosher sex act of any kind, and Marcus is in act two of his coming of age.

But now Marcus meets other challenges: Each student must attend a required religious convocation 10 times a year before graduation, and a head-on collision with the college’s dean (a stunning performance by actor/writer Tracy Letts (“August: Osage County”), who seems to be a closeted old border-line pedophile and who, after this first interview, repeatedly calls Marcus to his office.

In a series of “interviews” that are clearly sadistic inquisitional chess games, with Marcus always two moves ahead, Marcus eventually erupts under the pressure and storms out, probably out of school.

The film, narrated by Marcus with pages directly, I’m told, from the novel, comes to a conclusion where it began, in the darkness of North Korea and back across the world to the sun-dappled flowered wallpaper of a nursing home.

Schamus, who was born to translate and direct Roth’s work, holds fast to the book, and Lerman was his ideal choice to play the troubled Marcus. Lerman, with perfect focus, carries Marcus’ inner storm right to the surface and beyond, owning all of his scenes, those darkened by hate, and those blinded by the light of Olivia’s sexuality.


The previews of “Indignation” are misleading. They seem to promise something lurid, something tragic on a grand level. There is tragedy, as in most Roth tales, but of the smaller, unexpected kind that we all experience in our lives. Basically, it’s a simple tale of youthful frailty and the broken adults who exploit it.

Sarah Gadon (“The Amazing Spiderman”) totally embodies the emptiness of Olivia’s character. It’s a haunting performance.

Broadway actor Burstein, as Marcus’ tortured father, is clearly a trained theater actor; he knows his light and owns his moments. A beautiful actor to watch.

But it’s Linda Emond as Esther Messner, who took a Tony award for her role as Fraulein Schneider in “Cabaret” with Alan Cumming, who walks away with the movie. What do we call an actor who, upon entering a scene, takes the light and pulls the scene around her like a magnificent cape? A star. I have seen Geraldine Page and Viola Davis do this, and of course, the brilliant Meryl Streep.

How much would you pay to watch Burstein (currently doing “Fiddler on the Roof” on Broadway) and Emond do “Death of a Salesman,” with, at least, Lerman as Biff?

But until then, spending an hour and a half with this amazing trio here in “Indignation” will have to do.

J.P. Devine is a former stage and screen actor and the author of “Will Write For Food.”

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