Jewish boy from New Jersey meets college life in Protestant Ohio in 1951, and ends up…. Where and how Marcus Mesner (Logan Lerman) “ends up” is revealed early and late in “Indignation,” adapted from a 2008 Philip Roth novel of the same name.
Between those bookend scenes, we’re invited to ponder the vagaries of chance, fate, and personal responsibility as Marcus negotiates his freshman year at conservative Winesburg College (yes, in Ohio, thank you Sherwood Anderson), having managed to escape an over-protective, perhaps mentally ill working-class father (David Burstein) who imagines the worst for his only child and warns him that one mistake could ruin his life.
Marcus is bright, balanced and seems destined for success. Until he sees Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon) throw a bare leg over an armrest in the library. After that, his college experience becomes more complicated.
At one point, Winesburg Dean Hawes Caudwell (playwright and actor Tracy Letts) summons Marcus to explain why he’s asked for a housing reassignment. The self-righteous Caudwell interrogates Marcus, who — in one of the film’s strongest scenes — responds with a courageous brand of self-righteousness, grounded in philosophical rationalism and disdain for authority. Religion and war (Korea was raging) play key parts. But for all his smarminess, Caudwell probes for and finds Marcus’ weaknesses, bringing his father’s one-mistake warning back into the foreground. Still, it’s never clear who’s really responsible, if anyone, for the fate of this young man.
Unfortunately, the subtlety that characterizes the presentation of these ideas doesn’t always carry over to other elements. The film is bathed in unrealistic “period” sets, the score can be distractingly heavy-handed, and the acting of many minor characters verges on the campy. Olivia and Marcus are brittle too much of the time, suggesting that producer-turned-director and screenwriter James Schamus struggled to render readable Roth into smooth cinema. Still, Lerman is admirable as a Roth-like Jewish teen overflowing with angst and indignation, while Letts has superb moments as the overbearing and, shall we say, indignant, dean of student.