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The emotions in "Indignation," director James Schamus' adaptation of Philip Roth's novel, are so sharp and so precise you could cut a jigsaw puzzle with them.
It's 1951, and Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) is looking to college to avoid the draft and an assignment to Korea. He gets a scholarship to Winesburg College, a Christian school in Ohio, a world away from his working-class Jewish parents (Danny Bursting and Linda Emond) in Newark because at this campus with thousands of students, there are only 80 Jews.
Marcus is not Jewish himself, having declared himself an atheist and an acolyte of Bertrand Russell. So he objects to the school's requirement of weekly sessions at the chapel, listening to sermons from the faculty, which is a distraction from his studies.
A far more appealing distraction is Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), a fetching fellow student who surprises Marcus on their first (and only) date by performing fellatio. Olivia, as he learns, is emotionally fragile and spent some time in a mental institution for alcoholism and trying to slit her wrist.
The other figure who looms large in Marcus' campus life is Dean Caldwell (Tracy Letts), the dean of students. When Dean Caldwell summons Marcus to his office, what follows is a verbal battle of wills between the cocksure young student and the wiser, but mundane, authority figure.
The confrontation takes 18 minutes in the middle of the film. That's an eternity in movie time, but Schamus treats it like the meat of a great stage play, a spectacular display of verbal pyrotechnics.
Schamus, who also wrote the screenplay, makes his directorial debut here, but he's no naive first-timer. In addition to being the CEO of Focus Features, he has produced most of Ang Lee's movies so he's a connoisseur of good material.
With "Indignation," Schamus shows he's absorbed much from his colleagues. He captures Marcus' intellectual exuberance, his ideological idealism and his befuddlement that the world doesn't conform neatly into the categories his mind wishes it would. And his encapsulation of Roth's view of 1950s middle America (itself a nod to Sherwood Anderson's "Winesburg, Ohio") is equal parts Norman Rockwell and "Blue Velvet," with the dark and disturbing underside of life always hidden from view.
In this picture-perfect America, Marcus and Olivia are the poster children both hiding something behind walls of well-chosen words and Lerman and Gadon capture those internal struggles gracefully. Letts also knows the power of words (he wrote "August: Osage County," after all) and uses his scenes to establish Caudwell as the college's beacon of propriety.
"Indignation" is as finely calibrated a drama as one can find, and Schamus finds the exact spot where he can tap the glass to make the whole world shatter around us.
Philip Roth's story of a young Jewish man's college days in middle America is brought to life in a riveting adaptation.
Where • Area theaters.
When • Opens Friday, Aug. 12.
Rating • R for sexual content and some language.
Running time • 110 minutes.