The task of adapting Philip Roth to the screen has felled many a filmmaker over the years, from Ernest Lehman ("Portnoy's Complaint") to Robert Benton ("The Human Stain") to Ewan McGregor's disastrously received adaptation of "American Pastoral" earlier this year. It is a pleasant surprise, then, to see screenwriter and producer James Schamus (best known for his work with Ang Lee) make a confident debut with "Indignation," Roth's story of repression and anti-semitism at a 1950s Catholic university.
Logan Lerman stars as Marcus Messner, a Jewish working-class New Jersey kid who enrolls in a small Ohio college to avoid the Korean War. There he devotes himself to his studies, trying to avoid being lumped in with the Jewish fraternity while bristling at mass requirements by the dean ("August, Osage County" playwright Tracy Letts). He meets and falls for wealthy student Olivia (Sarah Gadon), but a sexual encounter between the two sends him down a spiral of guilt and doubt.
As a director, Schamus wisely takes cues from frequent creative partner Lee's earlier films ("The Ice Storm," "The Wedding Banquet"), trusting his actors while skillfully blocking them and allowing their performances room to breathe. There's a classical patience to his touch that serves the material well, especially in an long debate between Lerman and Letts, in which the self-righteous student and the unbending dean square off in the latter's office. One shows deep conviction in his decision not to fit inside a box, the other gives mild concessions while undermining him (the message: I respect you, but you'll fall in line or else). It's a thrill to see a real battle of wits on screen for an extended period of time, and a greater thrill to see a director who knows how to showcase it without gussying it up.
Both actors are superb throughout, with Lerman displaying a kind of confident intelligence and passion that's laid back until prodded, at which point he explodes. Letts, meanwhile, excels at the kind of condescending browbeating his authority figure uses as a weapon. The real heart of the film, however, belongs to Gadon, who counterintuitively plays Olivia with a kind of warmth that's nonetheless a bit removed, someone who's had to project gracefulness and poise to appeal to people and can't drop it, for fear of revealing deep pain.
Like his screenplay for "The Ice Storm" before it, "Indignation" utilizes a framing device that ties Lerman's anxieties from home and school to a greater tragedy. This is part of where "Indignation" falls short of that earlier film's lyrical qualities, feeling a bit too mechanistic and hammering home the film's deliberate but sometimes too measured sterility. Still, Schamus succeeds by capturing the particulars of the stifling 1950s mood, from the nervous formal dates to the familial and educational bullying to follow the expected path. With a promising debut under his belt, let's hope Schamus' next film can break out a bit more.
"Indignation" is available on video-on-demand services such as YouTube, Amazon and VUDU for $4.99.