Mid-century modern man

A rich adaptation of Philip Roth’s coming-of-age novel

Opens Friday, Sept. 2. Starring Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon and Tracy Letts. Directed by James Schamus. Pageant Theatre. Rated R.
Rated 4.0

Adapted from a Philip Roth novel, James Schamus’ Indignation is several things: a sexy romantic comedy, an anguished coming-of-age drama in a collegiate setting, an offbeat period piece set in the early 1950s and a scathing social commentary half-hidden beneath some seemingly mundane domestic drama.

And part of what makes this film exceptional is the skill with which it slaloms through and around the conventional expectations and familiar pleasures that we are likely to associate with such subject matter. In a sense, Indignation gives us less than we might have expected but also more than we’ve really bargained for.

Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), son of a kosher butcher in the Bronx, is a bright young man entering his freshman year at “Winesberg College” in Ohio. He’s already something of an intellectual, he’s eager to move beyond the limited prospects of the lower middle class neighborhood in which he was raised, and he’s beginning to feel suffocated by the clinging demands of his parents, Max (Danny Burstein) and Esther (Linda Emond).

At Winesberg, which is predominantly Christian, he finds himself sharing a dorm room with two other Jewish males, both of whom are ignored by the solitary Jewish fraternity that tries, and fails, to recruit Marcus. He’s something of a loner, but that doesn’t keep him away from Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), a smart and attractive blonde who seems worldly and intense at times and mysteriously fragile at others.

Almost inevitably, the scholarly independence and passionate nonconformity of Marcus bring him to the scrutinizing attention of one Hawes Caudwell (actor/playwright Tracy Letts), the lofty-minded clergyman who is also Winesberg’s dean of students. While Marcus’ wildly volatile relationship with Olivia is at the emotional heart of this story, the increasingly intense tête-à-tête confrontations between Marcus and Dean Caudwell form a kind of philosophical core that is no less dramatic.

Marcus is of course very much the focus of the story’s sympathies, and the dean at first seems an obvious antagonist. But it eventually becomes evident that there are no easy sympathies in Indignation, let alone simple ones. Issues of Fifties-style conformism and “polite” anti-Semitism collect around Dean Caudwell in particular, but the subtleties of Letts’ performance and of Schamus’ direction lead us to see that the man is no simple villain.

Similar complexities arise with Marcus’ mother. Her moral and emotional heft increase dramatically in the course of the film, and yet her impulse to protect proves both heroic and destructive. Something like the inverse of that occurs with Marcus’ father, and neither of the story’s potentially heroic rebels (Marcus and Olivia) stay entirely clear of the resulting crossfire.

The Korean War, a source of worries and fear for several of the characters, serves as a framing device for the story as a whole. The first scenes in the film are merely puzzling, and this is a film which feels for a while like a collection of detached episodes, however brilliant. But by the time the opening images recur at the finish, quite a lot of what once seemed almost entirely separate has taken on a good deal of intertwined resonance and meaning.