Marcus (Lerman) is a young Jewish boy growing up in New Jersey in 1950s America. His mother and father worry about their son joining the growing number of soldiers going off to fight in Korea and returning in coffins. An easy “out” appears to be the college route, with an Ohio college accepting the gifted student. However Marcus’ father feels like he’s losing control of his only child, and even when his son is away studying, he continues to maintain a smothering hand over proceedings.
College life seems to go down well with Marcus. Once he settles in, he meets the mysterious Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon) and falls instantly in love. The pair begin an intense romance, full of the usual perils of young love while opening up their deepest feelings and fears to one another. All the while, Marcus is coming to terms with his growing and well-reasoned thoughts on atheism. When the college Dean (Tracy Letts) calls the youngster in for a meeting it doesn’t end well as the student falls ill with appendicitis. More bad news comes when Marcus’ mother arrives to see her son and meets Olivia for the first time. Marcus is left with the choice of pleasing his family and leaving Olivia, or following his heart.
The anguish and turmoil young Marcus experiences reminds me of Shia LaBeouf’s turn in A Guide To Recognising Your Saints. We get to see traditional family values (swap in a Jewish upbringing for the Italian-American background in the earlier film) go up against the desire to break free and make it in an unforgivingly abrasive world.
Lerman has gone from child star (The Patriot) to ably supporting Brad Pitt in Fury, all the while surviving the perils of a failed teen franchise in Percy Jackson. Arguably his most accomplished performance to date was in The Perks of Being A Wallflower, portraying a similarly passionate young man struggling to have his voice heard.
Unfortunately, Indignation is built upon a jarring bookend premise that is at odds with the subtlety of the rest of the film. The highlights are the incredibly fast-paced confrontations between Marcus and the Dean of his college. Their initially civil interactions slowly evolve into zinging verbal jabs at one another with the younger man allowed to rage against the machine as well as “the man”. Letts, better known for his plays than screen performances, is superbly cast as the ageing figurehead of a system that is failing to keep up with the rapidly changing world around it.
Sarah Gadon (A Royal Night Out) also enjoys sparring with Lerman, their screen relationship capturing all the highs and lows of young love to devastating effect. If the film was stripped of its grandstanding shouting matches between Dean Caudwell and Marcus, it would still have an emotional wallop in its painful break-up sequence and missed opportunity love story.
Indignation will be one of those films that people will reference in the early career when Lerman inevitably enjoys further critical success, but the actor should be getting all the plaudits right now.
Indignation is on general release from November 18