As war rages in Korea and the tragedy touches home, Jewish student Marcus (Logan Lerman) finds a welcome escape from his overprotective father at a quiet college in Ohio. But his inner peace is shattered by a beguiling classmate (Sarah Gadon) and the college's religious policy, which put him into conflict with the moralistic dean (Tracy Letts). Adapted and directed by acclaimed screenwriter James Schamus (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; The Ice Storm), this splendidly played drama subtly distils the mood and themes of novelist Philip Roth's coming-of-age tale.
Indignation is one title for it. But for this tale of angst and awakenings at a sub-Ivy League college in 1951, novelist Philip Roth could have easily gone with Repression, Insinuation, Provocation, Segregation or Passive-Aggression.
Covering weighty issues with subtlety and finesse, first-time director Schamus' adaptation follows the fortunes of Jewish butcher's son Marcus Messner (Lerman) as he escapes his smothering domestic life in New Jersey for the relative freedom of Ohio's Wineberg College.
Although Jews are in the minority - and made to feel so - Marcus is simply glad of the time to think. Until, that is, the intriguing and startlingly open Olivia Hutton (Gadon) gets into his headspace... and trousers.
The Olivia situation pushes emotional buttons in Marcus that make him sensitive to all manner of slights and injustices, not least the students' mandatory attendance at chapel, regardless of faith (or, in Marcus' case, lack thereof).
A ruck with his roommates leads Marcus into further confrontation with Wineberg's moralistic Dean Caudwell, played by the splendidly infuriating Letts (better known as the Pulitzer-winning playwright of August: Osage County and jet-black psychological dramas Killer Joe and Bug).
Dripping with mutual condescension, their scenes are a high point, providing the finest student-master jousts since David Mamet's Oleanna.
But for all Schamus' adaptive gifts, Roth's deep and often introspective prose is not a natural fit for screen. The film is inescapably stagey. And sombre.
By the same token, it creates a deeply intimate atmosphere through rich production design and a slew of perfectly gauged performances, particularly from its star-cross'd leads Logan and Gadon.
Think Dead Poets Society... without the grandstanding.