“Indignation” depicts a working class Jewish student from Newark, N.J., who attends a small Ohio college where he struggles with sexual repression and cultural disaffection. In many ways, it is a classic coming-of-age story, which shows the rigid social mores of the 1950s clashing with the angst and rebelliousness of the bourgeoning youth culture.
Based on the novel of the same name by Philip Roth, “Indignation” is narrated by Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman). Marcus is a fish out of water at Winesburg College, a small liberal arts college in a largely Christian town. Marcus is escaping his provincial, kosher butcher father. While the 19-year-old’s own highbrow musings do not mesh with that of his father’s work ethic, being Jewish in a conservative gentile town is not a good fit, either.
“The film is largely in Marcus’ head, and it is like Roth’s own experience,” says director James Schamus. “As a young writer, and as a college student, Roth, too, was assimilated. While Marcus is finding his Jewish identity, he is also fighting against it, and there is a battle between that.”
“Indignation” is Schamus’ directorial debut, but he is an acclaimed screenwriter, known for “The Ice Storm,” “Eat Drink Man Woman” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” — all directed by Ang Lee. With “Indignation,” Schamus opted to direct it himself.
“I felt largely connected to this material,” he says. “As an observer of American life, Roth noticed a couple of oppressive, conservative things, and perhaps xenophobia. There is a healthy dose of anti-Semitism mixed in with small-town America. Roth felt the almost toxic mix.”
Marcus is disenchanted by religion, and increasingly by authority altogether. He has an adversarial relationship with Hawes Caudwell, the school’s dean.
In one meeting at the dean’s office, he objects to the chapel attendance requirement on the grounds that he is an atheist. He even quotes from philosopher Betrand Russell’s essay, “Why I Am Not a Christian.”
“I’m exactly the opposite of religious. I’m anti-religious. I find religious people hideous,” Roth similarly said in a 2005 interview. “It’s filled will fear and loneliness and anxiety — and I never needed religion to save me.”
In the film’s voiceover, Marcus reminds his audience that one must rise above feelings to create better clarity: “You be greater than your feelings. I don’t demand this of you — life does. Otherwise you’ll be washed away by feelings. You’ll be washed out to sea and never seen again.”
At Winesburg College, Marcus becomes infatuated with a fellow student, Olivia Hutton (played by Sarah Gadon), a survivor of a suicide attempt. They go out on a date in which the sexually inexperienced Marcus is bewildered when Olivia makes an unexpected advance. Some of his male colleagues put her down as a slut.
Are these kids just as old-fashioned as their provincial upbringings suggests? That’s never fully clear.
“The novel is called ‘Indignation,’” reminds Schamus. “We are meant to feel indignation. In America, we think it’s a word meaning anger, but it’s really that your dignity has been lost, it’s hard to know how Marcus is conscious of that. He is quite ignorant.”
Schamus also says the notion of freedom has its costs. The director may not have lived during the 1950s, but he convincingly channels the dangers of authority seen in that era.
“What looks like freedom may not always be free, and we need to break out [spiritually]” Schamus says. “We need to be breaking through the bonds of tradition.”
“Indignation” will open in Washington on Aug. 5.