“Indignation” is a curious title for James Schamus’ adaptation of Philip Roth’s 2008 novel, only because nobody ever utters the word. Is it the overarching emotion of the protagonist, Marcus Messner, a working-class Jewish kid entering his first year of college in 1951? Or does it describe the reaction he provokes in people? It certainly adds an elusive, almost ghostly layer of meaning to this enigmatic and beautifully realized film about a young life altered by the smallest choices.

Logan Lerman plays Marcus, a serious young man from Newark (Roth’s birthplace). While his cousins are dying overseas in Korea, Marcus earns a scholarship to Winesburg College in Ohio. For Marcus, college means not newfound freedom and friends but diligent studying and straight A’s. That is, until he meets Olivia Hutton (Sara Gadon).

advertisement | advertise on newsday

A blonde WASP with a history of suicide attempts, Hutton rocks Marcus’ world with a single act on their first date. It’s the kind of thing Marcus has only heard of. “Do you think she’s done that before?” he asks a roommate, who seems far less shocked. Marcus tries to steer clear of Olivia, but can’t help himself; a tentative relationship ensues.

Nothing is ever simple in a Roth novel. Marcus falls out with his Jewish roommates, then runs afoul of Dean Caudwell, a Christian bloviator played brilliantly by the playwright Tracy Letts (“August: Osage County”). In two riveting scenes — easily the film’s best — Lerman and Letts spar verbally over faith, atheism and matters of character. Adding to Marcus’ pressures is a visit from his mother (Linda Emond, excellent) with troubling news. A crisis looms, and although we long ago learned Marcus’ fate, we want to know the how and the why.

Schamus, a veteran producer and founder of Focus Features, clearly chose Roth’s novel for his directorial debut because it means something to him. Although the film has a somewhat superficial look, with glossy cinematography by Christopher Blauvelt and well-manicured wardrobes, Schamus’ screenplay digs deep into the characters and tries to convey Roth’s larger meanings. “Indignation” can’t be summed up neatly, which is what makes it such a personal and haunting statement.