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Review: 'Indignation' is an oasis of summer movie intelligence

Jewish boy Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) meets Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon) at a small, mostly gentile college in 1951, and her first-date sexuality throws him for a loop.
Jewish boy Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) meets Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon) at a small, mostly gentile college in 1951, and her first-date sexuality throws him for a loop.
Published Aug. 10, 2016

After success as a producer and Ang Lee's favorite screenwriter, James Schamus makes an impressive directing debut with Indignation, an oasis of summer movie intelligence.

Based on Philip Roth's novel, Indignation is the story of Marcus Messner, who is, like many Roth protagonists, young, Jewish and sexually curious. Marcus is the son of a Brooklyn butcher and put-upon mother, escaping to a small, mostly gentile Ohio college in 1951. He's a bright student, perhaps too aware of usually being the smartest person in the room. Grades come first, with sociability lagging behind.

Prejudice is veiled, casual and not limited to gentile students. There's one Jewish fraternity on campus, but a couple of that faith aren't cool enough to join. Mandatory student gatherings are held in a Christian chapel, and nothing in the cafeteria is kosher. No problem; Marcus is an athiest, drawing suspicion from college dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts).

Then Marcus meets Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), whose first-date sexuality throws him for a loop. It's so casual that she must have done this before. Olivia's past slowly emerges, Marcus' grades drop, and in a remarkably literate, extended scene, he and dean Caudwell draw academic battle lines. This scene and Letts' part in the episodic Wiener-Dog, also opening this weekend (review at tbtim.es/14xp), are the actor-playwright's two-part essay on misused authority.

As Marcus, Logan Lerman confirms his place among our finest young actors, a hunch proposed by The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Fury. Lerman projects a unique sensitivity, even when playing someone as callous as Marcus can be. He doesn't have that modern aura some actors bring to period pieces to make them less convincing. With a narrative this slight, Lerman quietly commands our attention, and empathy falls in line.

Schamus directs his own adapted screenplay without fuss, allowing his actors space to find the foibles between their lines. Indignation can be considered a highbrow college sex dramedy of sorts, the kind only an irreverent intellect like Roth's could concoct.

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

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