Logan Lerman hasn’t aged a day since playing cherubic schoolboys in the Percy Jackson movies and The Perks of Being a Wallflower—and his squeaky fresh face provides the ideal facade for Marcus Messner, the mature but inexperienced 19-year-old in Indignation. Marcus is a Jewish college student in 1951 who avoids the Korean War draft (and his meddlesome parents in Newark) by enrolling in a tony Midwestern Catholic university. He’s just precocious enough to believe that he’s smarter than everyone, including the school’s dean (Tracy Letts), and just naive enough to misread the sexual advances of a classmate (Sarah Gadon, echoing Grace Kelly in Rear Window), whose spontaneity repulses and attracts him.
The film is based on Philip Roth’s dynamite 2008 novel and marks the directorial debut of famed producer James Schamus (Brokeback Mountain), who captures the acute uncomfortableness and melancholia of Marcus’ angry young Rothian existence. Schamus’ script resorts to gratuitous voiceover, but he scores major points as a director of actors. In addition to the risky, committed work by Lerman and Gadon, stage actress Linda Emond is heartbreaking in two late scenes as Marcus’ mother. And in a performance worthy of an Oscar nomination, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Letts (August: Osage County) owns the movie’s centerpiece, a 16-minute battle royale between the dean and Marcus. The dean was more of a cartoon in Roth’s book, but Letts lends him a slippery wit that, much like the movie, is surprisingly potent. A–