Arts & Culture

‘Indignation’ evokes questions of identity

Film explores pressures to conform on college campus, restrictiveness in conservativism

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Avon theatre is currently screening “Indigation.” The film features Logan Lerman as Marcus Messner, an atheist college student.

An incredibly poignant commentary on grappling with identity on a spiritual, sexual and intellectual level, “Indignation,” the film adaptation of the Philip Roth novel, explores protagonist Marcus Messner’s emotional suffocation in rebelling against conformity.

“Indignation” follows the story of Marcus, a precocious young man from Newark, New Jersey, struggling with his sexual inexperience and bound for Winesburg College in an attempt to escape the Korean War draft. In Newark, Marcus — played by Logan Lerman — worked in his father’s butcher shop and, through his admission into Winesburg,  evades his father’s control over his whereabouts and future. Marcus leaves for Ohio to attend Winesburg, a fictional, Christian university that condones social conservatism through strict bedtime curfews and limited co-educational interactions, requires weekly attendance at chapel and inhibits intellectual discourse in controversial matters.

As an atheist who grew up Jewish, Marcus feels suffocated by the omnipresence of seemingly puritanical ideals and the college’s emphasis on weekly prayer. Marcus’s feelings of repression are exacerbated by Dean Caudwell’s disrespect toward his beliefs. Rather than offer Marcus solace for feeling out of place, Caudwell, played by Tracy Letts, doubts Marcus’s ability to interact with others, interrogating him and later casting him as a spoiled only child. Despite Lerman’s unconvincing performance in conveying Marcus’s anger, Letts artfully elicits an intense frustration from the audience that effectively rescues the scene and evokes sympathy for Lerman’s character.

Marcus’s parents, played by Linda Emond and Danny Burstein, only continue to emphasize the importance of conformity, urging Marcus to become involved in the Jewish fraternity on campus as they are acquainted with certain members. Emond transcends her unimpassioned script, embodying motherly love as she says she wishes for Marcus to fulfill the “American dream.” Marcus’s parents forbid him from seeing his love interest — Olivia Hutton,  portrayed by Sarah Gadon — as her mental health issues and history of self-harm do not conform to their standards for his romantic interests.

This emphasis on conformity manifests itself in actors’ diction as well. Lerman and Gadon maintain a certain linguistically articulate speech pattern that overemphasizes vowel sounds and formal grammar. Their way of speaking hinders rash emotional outbursts and stifles raw passionate expression to make the more emotional points of the film less moving.

Though Marcus maintains this linguistic poise for the majority of the film — even in his self-reflections and narration — he becomes overwhelmed with emotion when he learns that Olivia has left campus and Caudwell refuses to tell him why. This culminates in his violently, very crudely cursing Caudwell in his presence. A sharp contrast to the formality of the rest of the screenplay, Marcus’s choice to curse Caudwell only deepens the viewer’s understanding of the repression and emotional suffocation Marcus feels.

Despite certain shortcomings in its performances, “Indignation” leaves viewers questioning their own identities and further examining the power of pressures to conform in modern society.   

“Indignation” has a running time of 1 hour and 50 minutes. It is rated R for language and sexual content.

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