There’s something hardwired into us that prompts us to believe we can even the odds.
If fate hands us a losing hand, many of us try to bluff our way into winning the pot. It’s as if we can’t accept the unfairness of them – believing deep down that everything should always be “even Steven”. Maybe that’s why, sometimes, when we are put into an unfair situation, why we cling so tight to anyone who can help us. We feel as though the shame, the pain, are something that we can avoid, if only that one person can intervene with fate and save us the anger and annoyance at life’s inequity.
Of course, life usually doesn’t work that way.
INDIGNATION begins by introducing us to Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman). Marcus is a Jewish boy from Newark set to begin his first year of college at Winesburg College in Ohio. His boyhood friends are enlisting and dying in The Korean War. The adults around him are wondering how he’ll manage to keep kosher in central Ohio. Once he gets to school, the college administration is interested in helping him build community by surrounding him with Jewish roommates and fraternity pledges.
Marcus, however, isn’t all that absorbed by any of that. He’s too distracted trying to learn as much as college has to offer, navigate the social and political system that comes with college life, to get consumed with family, friends, or even God (whom he doesn’t believe in).
What Marcus is absorbed by is the very spirit of a girl on campus named Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon). Olivia is clever, poised, and beautiful. Marcus first notices her while she is studying in the library and realizes quickly that he will get little else done in life until he asks her out.
When he does, a few things become abundantly clear in a hurry. The first is that asking a girl like Olivia on a date is the easy part; the hard part is keeping it together once the date begins. The second is that Olivia has some darkness in her past – so says a scar on her wrist that was obviously self-inflicted. Third is that Olivia knows a thing or two that boys like Marcus have only read and heard about.
How is Marcus supposed to stare a star so bright and not go blind?
That’s the question that just about everyone begins posing to him, including the dean of students (Tracy Letts). Why is Marcus so enamoured by a girl who seems so quietly mixed-up. Why is everything from religion to community so abhorrent to him, but one girl so magnetic? To hear Marcus speak of Olivia, the connection is more than just sexual; he looks at her and sees contradiction, consolation, complexities, and capabilities.
But what does she see?
Stories like INDIGNATION aren’t about telling us a tale we’ve never heard before. This is not the first film about trying to assimilate, trying to forge identity, or trying to outrun demons…and it won’t be the last. It’s not the what that matters in a film like this, it’s the how.
For instance, how INDIGNATION goes about questioning whether or not Marcus is fitting in at Winesburg is by sitting him in the Dean’s office for a conversation that is direct, illuminating, and given more room to breathe than any other movie this size would afford its plot. It’s a conversation that goes back and forth like a boxing match – with each opponent holding the upper hand for a while before inevitably forsaking it. Sometimes youthful defiance seems like the combatant we want to win, sometimes its elderly skepticism.
What’s most impressive about the debate is that we leave it with no clear winner; and that the plot depends on that.
INDIGNATION wants us to think about perceptions, for instance the perception of a girl in a tweed skirt and saddle shoes who can quote classic French literature. Or the perception of the same girl when (in 1951) she offers up oral sex on the first date. What about the perception of a boy who gets all A’s and is attending college on a full scholarship from his temple? At the time, and to this day, we would look at such people or hear such rumours and make our presumptions. What if they are far better people than their worse mistakes? What if they are far worse than their best achievement? Would their wants surprise us…their regrets?
INDIGNATION is obsessed not only with getting us to challenge our own perceptions, but come to grips with our own responsibilities where it comes to others’ perceptions of us. Sometimes, we are allowed to challenge them; other times, we need to own them.
Much of that hangs on two conversations Marcus has; one with Olivia, and one with his mother. Olivia reaches out to him when he is too physically incapacitated to avoid the issue. She presses him to avert his eyes, to shut off his brain, and to let his heart take the lead. Is she better than her worst mistake? Is she worth the whispers?
Later, Marcus’ mother reaches out to him when he is too emotionally incapacitated to avoid the issue. She presses him to make a sacrifice; to do something he doesn’t want to do in order to honour his family and the sacrifices they have made in his name. She wants him to let honour take the lead. Is he prepared to pay the debit he is taking on from his family? Should he?
Many of these moments and many of these questions aren’t unique to INDIGNATION, but the oxygen they are afforded, and the weight they carry are deeply affecting. They are more than words on a page, or lines being spoken. They are more than shots or scenes. At the end of it all they are our moments reflected back to us – slightly more honey-tinted or sharply pressed, but still our moments.