As co-founder and former CEO of Focus Features, James Schamus was responsible for releasing some of the most elegant and stylish independent films of the past 15 years. Look closely at his similarly tony directorial debut, “Indignation,” and you can see traces of that prestigious lineup, from the detail-perfect period recreation of Todd Haynes’ “Far From Heaven” to the existential angst of the Coen brothers’ “A Serious Man” — connections that affirm both the quality of Schamus’ taste and the fact that the Columbia U. prof had been diligently studying the artists he’d championed. With “Indignation,” instead of handing the screenplay off to frequent collaborator Ang Lee, Schamus opted to make Philip Roth’s 29th novel his own first feature, choosing an emotional and incredibly personal piece of material (it fictionalizes Roth’s own early-’50s college experience) that adapts well to his polite, polished and reasonably old-fashioned aesthetic.
Though the arthouse scene has changed radically since Schamus first began producing nearly a quarter century ago, there will always be an intelligent adult audience for smart, melancholic dramas like “Indignation,” in which a neurotic Jewish teenager (Logan Lerman) from Newark, N.J., enrolled in a Midwestern university to avoid enlisting in the Korean War; fell in love with the first girl to give him an orgasm; and ultimately ended up falling victim to his over-protective parents’ worst fears.
Looking younger and even more innocent than he did in 2014’s “Fury,” Lerman plays Marcus Messner, the only son of a kosher butcher (Danny Burstein) and his suffocating wife (Linda Emond), who’ve grown even more controlling since his childhood friends started coming home from Korea in coffins. Though his folks mean well, Marcus interprets their concern as a form of oppression, shipping off to Ohio to attend Winesburg College, where he’s equally chafed to find everyone — from his roommates to recruiters for the lone Jewish fraternity of campus — trying to tell him what to do.
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As a loner, he doesn’t adjust well to sharing his dorm with a meathead (Philip Ettinger) and a closeted drama major (Ben Rosenfield); as an atheist, he resents being forced to attend chapel 10 times a year; and as a red-blooded straight man, he doesn’t take well to hearing his peers call the lovely Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon) a “slut” after the intimate moment they share in a borrowed Cadillac LaSalle. These traits — plus frequent repetition of the word “intense” to describe the reasonably mellow-looking young man — all point to an actor more high-strung than Lerman, and yet casting the blue-eyed wallflower does have its perks.
Schamus’ screenplay does nothing to disguise Marcus’ Jewishness, and yet Lerman’s endearing, if somewhat dopey persona steers the character away from the sort of high-strung stereotypes popularized by the likes of Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Allen. It actually comes as something of a surprise to hear the somewhat introverted Marcus stand up for himself, as he does it the film’s single best scene — a long, talky interview between Marcus and Dean Caudwell (playwright and actor Tracy Letts) that spans perhaps 30 pages in Roth’s novel and a spellbinding 15 minutes onscreen. This tour-de-force encounter encompasses a brilliant tete-a-tete in which Winesburg’s resident authority figure feels out the precocious young freshman (and former high school debate captain), who admirably — if somewhat queasily — takes a stand for his own values.
It’s a shame that the film’s romantic scenes don’t carry quite the same impact. “Indignation” conveys convincingly enough the fact that Marcus has become infatuated with Olivia, only to have his feelings complicated by the unsolicited sexual favor she volunteers on their first date. But the chemistry doesn’t necessarily click. There’s a horrifying scene late in the film when Marcus’ mother, having spotted the suicide scar on the young lady’s wrist (which Roth eloquently likens to a kosher blood-letting), insists that he cease all contact with her and find a less self-destructive partner, and shockingly enough, we can see her point. Gadon looks pretty enough in her knit sweaters and circle skirts, but the connection doesn’t feel convincing — leaving Marcus looking naive and over-grateful for the first taste of attention from a woman other than his mother.
Speaking of Olivia’s wardrobe, Schamus brings an almost fetishistically meticulous eye to the entire production, assembling a talented, if still somewhat green below-the-line team: Amy Roth on costumes, Inbal Weinberg for production design and Kelly Reichardt’s d.p., Christopher Blauvelt, behind the camera. Shooting almost entirely indoors (save for a Korean War skirmish and a few campus exteriors), the helmer demonstrates a soft spot for on-axis framing, especially when there’s intricate upholstery (condolences paid on a conpicuous yellow couch), bric-a-brac (as in the dean’s over-decorated office) or wallpaper (Olivia’s rose-gilded retirement home) to take in. One could chalk that up to Wes Anderson’s influence (Focus released “Moonrise Kingdom”), though the influences are far more diverse, with the director combing through countless visual references — classic movies, oil paintings and archival photographs — before settling on a composition.
This may be Schamus’ directorial debut, but he’s no amateur, and his experience — both in cinema and in life — comes through onscreen, supplanting whatever puerile energy a younger helmer might have absorbed from its tightly-wound 19-year-old protagonist (although it does take some cues from the recent young Allen Ginsberg portrait “Kill Your Darlings”). Taking its tonal cues from Jay Wadley’s gently elegiac violin-driven score, “Indignation” unfolds at a certain distance, both in maturity and time: Schamus may not have lived the era, the way Roth did, but he channels the ’50s still-conservative mentality convincingly enough, hitting the novel’s tragic final note ever so delicately, devastating those drawn in by Marcus and his dreams.