First-time director James Schamus brings Philip Roth’s novel Indignation to the screen

Being an outsider is never easy – especially when you’re too clever by half. And perhaps harder still in 1950s Ohio, the setting of ­Indignation, a worthy adaptation of Philip Roth’s 29th novel, a semi-autobiographical recollection of his college years.

A first-time director but venerable screenwriter and producer (notably for Ang Lee), James Schamus approaches the material from a writer’s perspective, eschewing fancy camera work for quiet, subdued cinematography that gives the story and actors room to shine.

Indignation is seen entirely within the values of the era rather than through modern eyes: Things that appear oppressive today are barely noted, leaving many of the inner conflicts merely suggested or alluded to. The 1950s may have been a societally repressive and conformist era, but to the protagonists, it’s simply life. Yet there is turbulence beneath the tranquil surface.

Indignation // © Polyfil, X-Verleih

The harder they come

Set during the Korean War, Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) is the son of a Kosher butcher from Newark, NJ, with an increasingly erratic father and a controlling mother, both terrified of losing him to this new war. He escapes the draft by enrolling under an academic scholarship at Winesburg (a reference to Sherwood Anderson’s famed novel of small town angst), a conservative, rural college in Ohio.

Introverted, ambitious and intellectually arrogant in a way only a smart teenager can be, he’s quick to argue with teachers, isolated yet aloof. Out of his element amongst middle-class Midwesterners, he’s also equally uncomfortable among fellow Jews, eventually moving out of the dorm and snubbing the Jewish fraternity.

The one person he connects with is fellow student Sarah Hutton (Sarah Gadon), his better in both social class and experience. A girl with a “reputation,” her suicide attempt and stay at a mental institution are an open secret. Gadon portrays her as a sphinx: tough yet fragile, worldly yet innocent, forward yet shy. On their first date, she comments on Messner’s intensity, while the same could be said of her. Later in the date, when she unexpectedly grants him a sexual favor, the inexperienced Messner is disturbed rather than elated.

In the film’s most memorable scene, Messner battles his Dean, H.D. Caudwell (Tracy Letts). Feigning concern over ­Messner moving out of his dorm – chosen deliberately as they were all Jews – Caudwell soon turns the tables, putting Messner on the stand. When the student challenges him over Winesburg’s mandatory chapel rule – as an Atheist, rather than a Jew – it becomes a duel.

Indignation // © Polyfilm, X-Verleih

The unlikely rebel

The confrontations between Messner and Caudwell are high points: Lerman as Messner seethes with righteousness, angrily quoting Bertrand Russell’s famous essay, Why I am not a Christian. He is no match for Letts as the slick Caudwell who masks his hostility behind avuncular concern, agitating Messner with invasive personal questions until he explodes. The young idealist never stands a chance.

The are no real antagonists in the story, each character is layered. When Messner’s mother pressures him to break up with Sarah, you understand her concern: Marcus is simply too naïve to realize how destructive Sarah can be. Even the insidious Dean Caudwell raises some valid points, calling Marcus out on his pretensions even when making underhanded insinuations.

If anything, that’s the one disappointment in Indignation: you bond with the intriguing characters, yet the abrupt ending deprives you of a resolution. Does Marcus ever become wise rather than clever? Despite its 111-minute runtime, you end up wishing for more.

Still, it does leave you wondering what else Schamus is capable of – while he may be a freshman director, he’s certainly no juvenile.

Starts February 17, Filmcasino