When a poised but deeply troubled blonde bombshell meets an academically brilliant but tightly wound freshman at an Ohio college, it sets in motion events neither can control in “Indignation,” an emotionally tinged story of loss and yearning fueled by weighty acting performances and a pitch-perfect re-creation of early 1950s America.
The bittersweet “Indignation” was adapted from Philip Roth’s third-to-last book, which came out in 2008. The first-time director is James Schamus, best known as a screenwriter (he received an Oscar nomination for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) who wrote this screenplay as well, and as the former CEO of Focus Features.
Logan Lerman (the Percy Jackson films, “Perks of Being a Wallflower,” “Fury”) plays Marcus Messner, the lone child of Esther (Linda Emond) and Max (Danny Burstein), a kosher butcher in Newark losing his grip as boys who are Marcus’ age are dying in the Korean War, and his son’s pending departure.
Good grades and the safety of a college deferment lead Marcus – in his argyle sweaters and white bucks – to the fictional Winesburg College in Ohio, a WASP-y environment where he studies hard and mostly shuns those around him. That includes his roommates and the rest of the small fraternity of fellow Jews, despite that era’s sting of anti-Semitism.
Enter the lustrous Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), an inquisitive transfer student in knit sweaters, circle skirts and saddle shoes, with a nasty scar on her left wrist. She is just as alienated from Winesburg in her own way as Marcus. As the guilt-laden and confused Marcus quickly finds out, she is also far more experienced with the opposite sex.
Olivia’s backstory is harder to piece together. She’s the offspring of divorced parents, back when divorce was still considered scandalous, but Olivia’s refusal to discuss her father suggests something dark and awful.
Alluring and sexually willing, the vulnerable yet outwardly confident Olivia is every heterosexual man’s fantasy. While turning Marcus’ world upside down, she also suffers the consequences of those sexually repressive times.
Marcus’ request to live alone leads to powerful encounters with the moralistic Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts), who doesn’t like that the tense student has set himself apart. In one long scene, Caudwell disagrees vehemently with Marcus’ ideas – including his identification as an atheist and resentment over mandatory chapel attendance – while appreciating the manner in which the former high school debate champion defends them.
Adding to Marcus’ frustrations and confused state is a visit from his mother bringing unwelcome news with tragic consequences.
The film ends where it begins, with a firefight in Korea and an old woman in a nursing home.
The production design, period wear and Jay Walden’s violin-propelled score all hit the right notes in this sad tune. Most of all, so do the charged and revealing performances of Lerman and Gadon.
3.5 out of 4 stars
Starring: Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon, Tracy Letts, Linda Emond, Danny Burstein
Director: James Schamus
Running time: 111 minutes
Rated: R for strong sexual scenes and language.
The lowdown: Two college freshmen become romantically involved in the sexually-repressed 1950s, against the backdrop of the Korean War.