'Indignation': Sundance Review

A warmly satisfying screen translation of a work by an author who has rarely been served well on film.

Screenwriter, producer and industry executive James Schamus moves into directing with this fine adaptation of Philip Roth's novel about an independent-minded youth chafing against 1950s rigidity.

There's a stunner of a centerpiece scene in James Schamus' exquisitely wrought film of Indignation that is quintessential Philip Roth, the author of the source novel. Played as a thrilling match of equals between Logan Lerman in a breakout performance and playwright-actor Tracy Letts in a turn that will push his estimable reputation to greater heights, this daringly extended exchange is a dialectic pitting a secular Jewish college student, resistant to suffocating authority, against a needling faculty Dean, impressed by the young man's presentation while deploring his content. It's characteristic of a film that is simultaneously erudite and emotional, literary and alive, that so much talk could be so enthralling.

Given the professorial Schamus' distinguished industry pedigree — as former chief of Focus Features during its most artistically vital years, and screenwriter of films from The Ice Storm to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon — this is exactly the sort of stylish adult movie you might expect him to make in his long-awaited move into directing. Still, there's no such thing as a sure bet in career jumps, so the elegant execution, the incisive grasp of character and milieu, and the stealthy but sure arrival of pathos are extremely gratifying.

As writer-director, Schamus has also managed to stay true to the work of a writer whom many believe defies adaptation. Of the Roth books that have made it to the screen, the earliest, Goodbye, Columbus from 1969, was perhaps the best received, though it hasn't aged well, and even at the time wasn't universally loved.

Published in 2008, Indignation is a dark, deeply personal book with all the vigor of Roth at his best. A compact, propulsive story about the interplay of fate and choice, sex and mortality, in a vividly evoked mid-century America, it's told in pungently direct prose by a dead narrator. And while it might be described as Roth imagining a different version of himself, had he been steered by other aspirations, its very title is a blunt distillation of the blistering state of mind that has shaped so much of the author's work.

Schamus has necessarily sacrificed much of the book's wonderful early workplace detail. (The central figure played by Lerman, Marcus Messner, works in his father's kosher butcher shop in Newark, NJ.) And perhaps as a tonal choice, he has downplayed some of the biting humor. But he brings the haunting essence of the novel to the screen with delicacy and restraint, yielding emotional richness without sentimentality.

The opening jumps from a brief, almost wordless glimpse of on an old woman in a retirement home to the Korean War. A voiceover considers the chain of events, linked by causality, which determines how we end up on an exact day at an exact time in a specific occurrence. Back in Newark, funerals for local boys are fueling the spiraling anxieties of Marcus' father, Max (Danny Burstein). "The tiniest mistake can have consequences," he says, fearing that his straight-A student son will be led astray in pool halls and gambling dens. Max's paranoia is scaring his levelheaded wife Esther (Linda Emond) and pushing Marcus away.

A scholarship to attend Winesburg College in Ohio (a fictional town that takes its name from the classic Sherwood Anderson short story cycle) is Marcus' ticket to avoiding the draft and escaping his overprotective father. He excels in his academic pursuits and carries out his duties as a student library employee. But Marcus' small signs of defiance mark him as a potentially troubled case to the moralizing Dean Caudwell (Letts).

Refusing to continue being distracted by his annoying dorm mates, Marcus moves to an isolated garret, considered the most undesirable room on campus. He declines the warm overture of Sonny Cottler (Pico Alexander), charming president of the Jewish fraternity, to join up. And as an atheist, he resents the college's mandatory chapel attendance.

These and other factors surface when he's summoned to Dean Caudwell's office for a faux-congenial interrogation. Marcus defends his position by citing Bertrand Russell's takedown of Christianity, before puking on the Dean's trophies and being rushed to hospital for an emergency appendectomy.

Almost invariably a significant factor in a Roth story, carnality plays a substantial role here. Schamus nails that element by detailing the momentous impact of one sex act in particular, Marcus' first experience of fellatio, in a borrowed car parked in a graveyard at the end of his one real date with damaged WASP princess Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon).

A knockout blonde who speaks in a voice as creamy as her complexion and seems literally to float through rooms, Olivia initially blinds Marcus to the effort it takes for her to maintain control — and also to the scars on her wrist. But her sexual forwardness is too foreign to his experience of nice girls in Newark for him to comprehend, causing him to obsess over her reasons ("I think it's because her parents are divorced") and drive her away for a time.

The pendulum swings of their mutual infatuation, and the effect it has on Marcus' stability at Winesburg and beyond, form the beguiling center of the narrative as the mood darkens into deepening shades of melancholy before concluding in tragedy.

With the principal exception of Lerman and Gadon, Schamus has cast extensively from the New York theater talent pool, plus Chicago in Letts' case. That pays off superbly in the many electric exchanges of dialogue, some of which could almost be charged stage confrontations. While the duel between Marcus and Dean Caudwell is the virtuosic high point, the intimacy between Marcus and Olivia makes their every scene bristle with intoxicating sexual energy, even when sorrowful undercurrents are folded into the mix.

There's also a fabulous pair of scenes late in the action when Esther turns up in Ohio to visit Marcus in the hospital. Her encounter there with Olivia is both archly amusing and horrifying as she quickly assesses the girl as a bad risk. And her negotiation of a deal with Marcus, in which she agrees not to divorce his increasingly bitter and abusive father in exchange for a promise from her son, is shattering.

Emond and Burstein are top-tier theater stars who appeared together as thwarted middle-aged lovers in the recent Broadway revival of Cabaret; casting them here as a careworn married couple was a nice touch. The same goes for the brilliant Letts, who injects a mischievous strain of megalomania into the Dean's invasive displays of concern, making his tenacity in an argument both loathsome and funny. In a role with echoes of Sylvia Plath, Gadon is lovely, planting quiet traces of chaos beneath Olivia's dreamy poise.

But the terrific Lerman, who appears in pretty much every scene and holds your gaze throughout, is the film's quiet revelation. He gives a performance of tremendous focus, maturity and depth of feeling, with exciting flashes of the umbrage that gives the film its title, every time Marcus feels the itch of oppressive authority.

The film is a class act in every department. The period production design (Inbal Weinberg) and costumes (Amy Roth) are meticulously detailed; the filigreed string score by Jay Wadley brings a classical feel without becoming old-fashioned; and the cinematography of Christopher Blauvelt, with its insinuating low and high angles, reminds us constantly that a life is being scrutinized. Schamus can very respectably add director to his string of career achievements.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)

Production companies: Likely Story, Symbolic Exchange

Cast: Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon, Tracy Letts, Linda Emond, Danny Burstein, Ben Rosenfield, Pico Alexander, Philip Ettinger, Noah Robbins

Director-screenwriter: James Schamus, based on the novel by Philip Roth

Producers: Anthony Bregman, James Schamus, Rodrigo Teixeira

Executive producers: Caroline Jaczko, Avy Eschenasy, Stefanie Azpiazu, Lourenco Sant'Anna, Sophie Mas, Woody Mu, Logan Lerman, Lisa Wolofsky, Jonathan Bronfman

Director of photography: Christopher Blauvelt

Production designer: Inbal Weinberg

Costume designer: Amy Roth

Music: Jay Wadley

Editor: Andrew Marcus

Casting: Avy Kaufman

Sales: CAA
Not rated, 110 minutes.