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Gadon (left) and Lerman in Indignation. This tale of death, sex, religion and intellectual rebellion is a beacon of elegance for those in search of grown-up, dialogue-driven fare.

Not your standard summer offering

Aug 19, 2016 5:50 AM

INDIGNATION arrives amid the crush and the crash-bang of the summer movie season, in danger of being overlooked and overwhelmed by the noise and the nonsense that is so prevalent at this time of the year. Instead, this tale of death, sex, religion and intellectual rebellion - among other things - is a beacon of elegance for those in search of grown-up, dialogue-driven fare.

The film, based on the 2008 book of the same name by Philip Roth and set in the early 1950s against the backdrop of the Korean War, marks the assured directorial debut of James Schamus, an award-winning screenwriter, producer and frequent collaborator of Ang Lee (The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain).

Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), a studious, quietly intense young Jewish man, works part-time in his father's kosher butcher shop in Newark, New Jersey. He is strong-minded, intellectually curious and eager to escape the stifling influence of his father Max (Danny Burstein) and mother Esther (Linda Emond), who are reluctant to let go of the parental reins, worried that Marcus will end up being drafted into the army and - like some of the kids in the neighbourhood - come back from Korea in a wooden box.

Marcus addresses both his own and his parents' concerns by getting a scholarship to a small college in Ohio, where he is assigned to share a room with two other Jewish students. He quickly comes to resent being defined by his Jewishness and, being an atheist, having to attend daily chapel service.

On the plus side, he is smitten by Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), a classmate from a well-to-do family with the face of an angel, whose free-spiritedness in a deeply conservative community intrigues him. "If you survive the square-ness of this place you'll have a sterling future," she tells him. "You should be studying philosophy at the Sorbonne."

We are given an insight into the strict social mores involved with dating in the 1950s but Marcus is puzzled by her behaviour when, at the end of their first date, she performs an unsolicited sexual favour. "In Newark, it's inconceivable that girls like Olivia could do such a thing," he says in voiceover. "I really don't know what to make of it."

Marcus is further beleaguered by Hawes Caudwell (Tracy Letts), the dean of the college who tries to pin him down on his religious beliefs and apparent lack of "spiritual sustenance". After an extended confrontation where Marcus defends his outspoken rejection of puritanical values and traditions like mandatory chapel and Christianity, invoking Bertrand Russell along the way, he collapses in the dean's office.

Marcus wakes up in hospital to learn he has had his appendix removed. Then Olivia shows up and all is well again - until his mother appears. Esther spots the scars on Olivia's wrists and immediately susses the situation, sensing that the girl could derail Marcus from the rigid path his parents have set. "The world is full of young women who have not slit any wrists - find one," she commands.

The road eventually leads back to the movie's opening scene where Marcus is shown in uniform, firing his gun at the enemy and trying to avoid getting shot himself. How he ended up in Korea after all is both tragic and inevitable. Indignation, well-crafted and well-acted, is worth a detour from the mindless distractions of summer. Don't expect it to make you feel good as well, though.

Rating: B