James Schamus is best known as Ang Lee’s longtime producer, sharing the Oscar-winning filmmaker’s affinity for such projects as “The Ice Storm” and “Brokeback Mountain.” No surprise, then, that Schamus makes his feature-directing debut with “Indignation,” a portrait of a repressed, disaffected Jewish student adapted from the novel by Philip Roth.
Despite the material’s fit, the story’s relentlessly downbeat tone is challenging. Strong performances by Logan Lerman (“Fury”) and Sarah Gadon (Hulu’s “11.22.63”) can’t keep the film from feeling like exhaustingly slow going.
Lerman plays Marcus Messner, a butcher’s kid in 1950s Newark itching to get away from his father, whose worrying about the Korean War draft and other filial hazards has turned chronic. Marcus’s escape is his scholarship to tiny Winesburg College, in Ohio, a tolerable enough place to earn his degree, if not exactly a beacon of religious inclusion. It helps that the school also happens to be the educational pick of attractive, intellectually intriguing coed Olivia Hutton (Gadon).
The pair form a fast connection as deep-feeling misfits on a campus full of squares (Olivia’s diss) and go-along-to-get-along types, but it’s clear that they’re also very different. She has a mercurial emotional history marked by a suicide try and subsequent forced transfer to Winesburg, while he’s got a modest reserve that leaves him completely thrown by her decidedly physical nature.
Marcus’s spiral lands him in a meeting with the dean (Tracy Letts, “Homeland”), whose let’s-rap benevolence veers toward sanctimony as the session turns agonizingly contentious. Letts’s vague resemblance to John Lithgow had us flashing back to the preacher man in “Footloose” — you know, without the pop accompaniment, or the footlooseness. The boychik idealist invokes Bertrand Russell agnosticism. The old sage calls him out for his brashness. They both have a point, to varying degrees.
The run-in is followed by another extended, train-wreck office encounter, as well as by an even more compelling scene between Marcus and his loving but controlling mother (Linda Emond). They’re fateful exchanges with big implications for Marcus’s relationship with Olivia, and revealing connections to his narration about life’s choices. Still, if it’s all meant to play like a realistic progression for Lerman’s character, it doesn’t quite work. His unraveling comes jaggedly, never mind the film’s deliberate pace. Meanwhile, for all the complexity Hutton projects, her best dialogue comes in a breakup-letter voice-over. She deserves more.
Written and directed by James Schamus, based on the novel by Philip Roth. Starring Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon. At Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square, West Newton. 110 minutes. R (sexual content, some language).