In “Indignation,” James Schamus’s adaptation of the 2008 novel by Philip Roth, Logan Lerman plays Marcus Messner, the son of a kosher butcher in Newark who, in 1951, escapes the Korean War and the overprotective clutches of his parents (Linda Emond and Danny Burstein) to attend Winesburg College in Ohio.
That nod toward Sherwood Anderson is purely intentional in a story of cultural displacement, sexual awakening and, finally, cruel irony that, for all its fealty to Roth’s setting and characters, feels at cautious arm’s length from the bristling emotion of the title. An Angry Young Man in embryo, Marcus is a straight-A student who intends to go to law school, largely keeping to himself when he spies the flirtatiously dangling leg of a fellow student named Olivia (Sarah Gadon). Troubled and far more sexually experienced than Marcus, Olivia exudes the blonde-shiksa-goddess perfection of Eva Marie Saint. Except she’s a sinner — and a coolly unapologetic one — which leaves Marcus in a muddle of bemused moral offense on the one hand, and dizzying attraction on the other.
Schamus makes his directorial debut with “Indignation,” for which he also wrote the screenplay, and he approaches the material with careful, almost fetishistic deliberation, a style that befits the 1950s backdrop while lulling the audience into a suitable sense of security before the final, agonizing twist. Lerman, who also produced, makes a reasonably convincing but emotionally blank Marcus, whose expression conveys tentative apprehension more than spiky self-righteousness. The best scene in “Indignation” — when Marcus, high on atheism and Bertrand Russell, embarks on a prolonged philosophical thrust-and-parry with the college dean, played by Tracy Letts — is staged like a polite, ever-so-restrained set piece, instead of the aria that its climactic placement justifies. (Still, this sequence is far more riveting than Marcus’s assignations with Olivia, which unfold with clinical precision, but little persuasive feeling.)
Rather than take the audience inside Marcus’s world, “Indignation” is content to show it to us, in an episodic narrative in which, as Marcus’s worried father insists, even “the tiniest mistake can have consequences.” The beauty of “Indignation” can be found in how it builds, growing from a garden-variety coming-of-age story into a poetic, even prayerful, meditation on the pitiless vagaries of character and regret. Thoughtful and reserved, perhaps even to a fault, “Indignation” winds up packing a wallop far greater than its modest parts might suggest.
R. At area theaters. Contains sexuality and some obscenity. 110 minutes.