Though it could use more dramatic juice, “Indignation” succeeds as absorbing, intelligent, grown-up cinema.
Screenwriter James Schamus makes an impressive directorial debut with this period drama based on Philip Roth’s novel set in the repressed, conformist, anti-Semitic 1950s.
Schamus is known for his collaborations with director Ang Lee (“The Ice Storm,” “Brokeback Mountain”) and for the films released by Focus Features when he was its CEO (“Lost in Translation,” “Milk”). “Indignation” further demonstrates his interest in making medium-sized movies containing stories about human connection and complexity.
In 1951, in the Roth territory of Newark, N.J., Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) works at the kosher butcher shop owned by his parents (Linda Emond, Danny Burstein). To escape both the draft — friends are dying in the Korean War — and his father, whose fear over Marcus’ safety has resulted in an overbearing protectiveness, Marcus goes off to college, in far-away Ohio.
He struggles to fit in at his new surroundings, where he dislikes his roommates (Ben Rosenfield, Philip Ettinger), refuses to join the Jewish fraternity, and disapproves of mandatory chapel attendance (he’s an atheist). He studies hard.
But then he catches sight of Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), the blondest and most mysterious girl in his class.
On their date, Olivia introduces Marcus to escargot and, even more traumatically for him, to oral sex. Her forwardness, this being 1951, unnerves him, His clumsy attempt to understand Olivia, who is complicated and troubled, leads to tragedy.
Melodramas like this need to make us feel the suppressed passion, and Schamus’ respectable, refined directorial style doesn’t do that. We’re not as moved as we should be.
Nor can we comprehend Olivia’s fragility, despite the attempts of Schamus and Gadon to flesh out this Roth character.
War-zone bookends and ghostly narration, meanwhile, add little.
But the movie still satisfies on many fronts. No mere Merchant Ivory-style prestige film, it contains quietly stirring insights into the intricacies of human need. Schamus writes pithy dialogue and can tell an engrossing story — in this case, one about love, ideals, identity, intolerance, and how seemingly minor actions can drastically change lives.
Lerman (“Fury”) and Gadon (“Cosmopolis”) give multifaceted performances. While Lerman’s Marcus doesn’t bear out Olivia’s description of him as “intense,” he conveys essential conviction.
Best, though, are the scenes featuring an antagonistic dean (a formidable Tracy Letts), who personifies 1950s conformity. His 15 minutes of verbal sparring with Lerman’s headstrong Marcus are spellbinding.
Also memorable is a visit from Marcus’ mother, who disapproving of unstable Olivia, gives her son a heartbreaking ultimatum.
Visually, Schamus and his crew have created a detailed, convincing period setting. Schamus works evocative wonders with floral wallpaper.
Starring Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon, Tracy Letts, Linda Emond
Written and directed by James Schamus
Running time 1 hour, 50 minutes